States of Jesus Christ

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The States of Jesus Christ are the different relationships Jesus Christ had to God's law for mankind, to the possession of authority, and to receiving honor for himself. Generally two states (humiliation and exaltation) are distinguished. Thus, the doctrine of the twofold state of Christ is the teaching that Christ experienced first the state of humiliation, then the state of exaltation. Within each of these states four aspects may be distinguished.

The Humiliation of Christ

The four aspects of Christ's humiliation are (1) incarnation, (2) suffering, (3) death, and (4) burial. Sometimes a fifth aspect (descent into hell) is included.

Incarnation

The incarnation, or Christ's taking to himself a human nature, was itself a step of humiliation. He gave up the honor and glory that belonged to him in heaven (John 17:5). He also gave up his right to exercise divine authority for his own benefit and the right to enjoy his Lordship over all things in heaven and on earth (II Cor. 8:9; Phil. 2:6-7; Heb. 2:9). Thus he gave up the status of ruler and took on the status of a servant. Furthermore, he subjected himself to the demands of living under the law (Gal. 4:4), thus making it necessary for him to obey perfectly the OT laws which God had commanded of his people (John 8:46; Matt. 3:15). He took on himself the obligation to obey God perfectly as a man, as our representative, in order to earn salvation for us through a record of perfect lifelong obedience (Rom. 5:18-19). This he had to do in the strength of his human nature, without miraculous assistance from his divine powers (cf. Matt. 4:3-4).

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It was a true human nature which the Son of God took to himself. It was not merely a human body, but also a human mind (which learned as we learn, Luke 2:52), and a human soul (which could be troubled as we are troubled, John 12:27; 13:21). Thus, Jesus was fully man, made like us "in every respect" (Heb. 2:17). He had to be fully man in order to become the sacrifice who was offered for man's sins: if he was not fully man, we could not have been saved. Nevertheless, the human nature of Christ was not subject to sin (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 4:15; I John 3:5). Thus, his human nature was like Adam's human nature before the fall.

Yet Jesus did not give up any of his divine attributes or become less fully God when he took on a human nature. He remained fully God (John 1:1, 14; Col. 1:19; 2:9), omnipotent (Matt. 8:26-27; Isa. 9:6), omniscient (John 2:25; 6:64; 16:30; 21:17), eternal (8:58), and incapable of dying (2:19; 10:17-18). However, these attributes were veiled, not generally manifested during Jesus' earthly ministry (Matt. 13:55-56), and never used for his own benefit or to make the path of obedience easier for him (4:1-11).

Thus, Jesus remained fully God and became fully man as well. It is sometimes said, "while remaining what he was, he became what he was not." (It should be remembered that it is God's Son, the second person of the Trinity, who became man. God the Father did not become man, nor did the Holy Spirit: Matt. 3:16-17; John 1:1; 3:16; Gal. 4:4). It is the most amazing fact in all history that one who was eternal and infinite God should take to himself the lowly nature of a man and should then continue to exist for all eternity as fully God and fully man as well, united in one person.

It is important to insist that even while existing in these two natures, Jesus Christ remained one person. His human nature was not an independent person by itself (capable, e.g., of talking to the divine nature or acting in opposition to it). In a manner that surpasses our understanding, the human and divine natures of Christ were integrated into one person, and he remains as both God and man, and yet one person, forever.

Suffering

Jesus' sufferings lasted throughout his whole life, though they culminated in his trial and death on the cross. He experienced the ordinary sufferings of living in a fallen world. He was weary (John 4:6), thirsty (19:28), hungry (Matt. 4:2), sorrowful (John 11:35), and lonely (Matt. 26:56). He felt great grief at human sin and its terrible effects (Matt. 23:37; Mark 3:5; 8:12; John 11:33-35, 38). He endured human opposition and intense hatred against himself (Luke 11:53-54; John 15:18, 24-25). He was "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief" (Isa. 53:3).

Moreover, he "learned obedience through what he suffered" (Heb. 5:8); that is, his moral strength and ability to resist temptation increased with the successful meeting of each more difficult temptation, especially those connected with hardship and suffering. He experienced the sufferings of enduring great temptations without yielding (Matt. 4:l.-11; Luke 11: 53-54; 22:28; Heb. 2:18; 4:15; I Pet. 2:21-23), especially in the Garden of Gethsemane just prior to his death (Matt. 26:37-38; Heb. 5:7; 12:3-4). Here it must be remembered that one who does not yield to temptation most fully feels its force, just as someone who successfully holds a heavy weight overhead feels its force much more than someone who drops it at once.

Jesus' humilitation increased in intensity at the time of his trial and death. Physical sufferings connected with crucifixion were terrible, as were the mocking and shame connected with such a death. But even worse were the sufferings in spirit which Jesus experienced when God the Father put on him the guilt of our sins (II Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13; I Pet. 2:22; Isa. 53:6). The Father turned away his face, so that Jesus was left alone with the blackness of sin and guilt upon him (Matt. 27:46; Hab. 1:13). Then, as Jesus fulfilled the role of propitiatory sacrifice (Rom. 3:25; I John 2:2; 4:10), he bore the fury of the intense wrath of God against sin, and bore it to the end.

Death

Since the penalty for sin was death (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23), it was necessary that Jesus himself die to bear our penalty. His death was similar to ours, and is the pattern for us. Jesus' physical body died (Matt. 27:50), and his human spirit (or soul) was separated from his body and passed into the presence of the Father in heaven (Luke 23:43, 46). Thus, he experienced a death that is like the one we as believers will experience if we die in this present age. The knowledge that Jesus has gone through death before us should remove from us the fear of death (I Cor. 15:55-57; Heb. 2:14-15).

It is not correct to say that Jesus' divine nature died, or could die, if "die" implies a cessation of activity, a cessation of consciousness, or a diminution of power (John 2:19; 10:17-18). Yet by virtue of union with Jesus' human nature, his divine nature experienced what it was like to go through death. Whether the divine nature was ever itself the object of divine wrath against sin is not explicitly stated in Scripture. (For the idea that Jesus "descended into hell" after his death on the cross, see below.)

Burial

Jesus' body was laid in a tomb (Matt. 27:59-60), and he continued under the state of death for a time. Thus, Jesus' humiliation was complete in that he suffered all the punishment and shame due to fallen mankind as a result of sin.

"Descent into Hell."

It does not seem correct to say that Jesus descended into hell, at least not according to any sense in which that phrase can be understood today, apart from specialized meanings which may be assigned to the word "hell." He did not experience further conscious suffering after he died on the cross, for he cried, "It is finished" (John 19:30). The statement from Ps. 16:10, "Thou dost not give me up to Sheol," quoted of Christ in the NT (Acts 2:27; cf. 13:35) is best understood to mean that God did not abandon him in the grave or in the state of death, for the Hebrew word se'ol can certainly have those meanings.

Nor did Christ proclaim a second chance for salvation for those who were dead. I Pet. 4:6, "this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead," is best understood to mean that the gospel was preached to believers who had died before the time Peter was writing, and that the reason it was preached to them during their lifetime was not to save them from physical death, but to save them from final judgment. It is also unlikely that any NT text can be understood to teach that Jesus after his death and before his resurrection went to proclaim his triumph to rebellious spirits in prison (a common Lutheran view) or to bring OT believers into the presence of God in heaven (a Roman Catholic view).

In Eph. 4:9, where Paul says that Christ descended into "the lower parts of the earth," it is best understood as a genitive of apposition, meaning "the lower parts, namely, the earth" (compare NIV: "the lower, earthly regions"). Thus, the text refers to the incarnation. I Pet. 3:18-20, admittedly a difficult text, says that Christ "went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark." When it is realized that Peter saw the spirit of Christ as active in the OT prophets (I Pet. 1:10-11), and saw Noah as a "preacher" of righteousness (II Pet. 2:5), this text is probably best understood to mean that Christ in spirit was preaching through Noah while the ark was being built. Thus, no "descent into hell" is contemplated here either.

In the Apostles' Creed, the phrase "descended into hell" is a late addition, appearing only around A.D. 390, and probably originally having the meaning, "descended into the grave."

The Exaltation of Christ

The four aspects of Christ's exaltation are (1) resurrection, (2), ascension, (3) session, and (4) return in glory.

Resurrection

The resurrection was the transition point into Jesus' state of exaltation. It was the person of Christ that was exalted, not just his human nature, but the focus of this activity of exaltation was the change in his human nature to a new, much more glorious state.

The resurrection was not just a restoration to life, but the beginning of a new, better kind of life, a "resurrection life" (Rom. 6:9-10). After the resurrection, Jesus still had a physical body that could be touched and held (Matt. 28:9; John 20:17, 27), could break bread (Luke 24:30), prepare breakfast (John 21:12-13), and eat (Luke 24:42-43). It was a body of "flesh and bones," for Jesus said, "A spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have" (vs. 39).

Yet this physical body of Jesus was no longer subject to weakness, sickness, aging, or death. It was imperishable and glorious and powerful (I Cor. 15:42-44; the term "spiritual" here means not "nonmaterial" but "conformed to the character of the Holy Spirit"). It is possible that John 20:19 implies that Jesus had the ability to enter a locked room miraculously. It is clear, however, that since Jesus was the "firstfruits" of the resurrection, we will be like him when we are raised from the dead (I Cor. 15:20, 23, 49; Phil. 3:21; I John 3:2).

The resurrection demonstrated the approval of God the Father and his satisfaction with Christ's work of redemption (Isa. 53:11; Phil. 2:8-9). Now Christ was exalted to a new status with respect to the law as well: he was no longer under the law in the sense of being obligated to obey the OT as our representative, for his work of obedience in our place was complete (Rom. 5:18-19).

The resurrection also was the initiation of a new relationship with God the Father, for Jesus was exalted to the role of messianic "Son" with new power and authority which were not his before as God-man (Matt. 28:18; Acts 13:33; Rom. 1:4; Heb. 1:5).

Ascension

Forty days after his resurrection (Acts 1:3), Jesus ascended up to heaven and entered more fully into the privileges of his state of exaltation. The NT clearly presents Jesus' ascension as a bodily ascension and therefore as ascension to a place (Luke 24:51; John 14:1-3; 16:28; 17:11; Acts 1:9-11), though it is a place ordinarily hidden from our physical eyes (Acts 7:55-56; cf. II Kings 6:17). Thus, Jesus retained his human nature when he returned to heaven and will retain it forever (cf. Heb. 13:8). However, Jesus' human nature is now worthy of worship by all creation, unlike our human nature.

When Jesus ascended into heaven he received glory, honor, and authority which were not his before as God-man (Acts 2:33, 36; Phil. 2:9-11; I Tim. 3:16; Heb. 1:3-4; 2:9), especially the authority to pour out the Holy Spirit on the church in greater fullness and power than before (Acts 1:8; 2:33).

After Jesus ascended into heaven he also began his high priestly work of representing us before God the Father (Heb. 9:24) and of interceding for us before God (7:25; Rom. 8:34). (Lutherans have taught that Jesus' human nature also became omnipresent upon his ascension to heaven, but this teaching does not receive clear support from Scripture, and appears largely to be affirmed in order to support a particular view of the presence of Christ's body in the Lord's Supper.)

Sitting (Session) at the Father's Right Hand.

A further state in the exaltation of Christ was his sitting down at the right hand of the Father in heaven (Acts 2:33; Eph. 1:20-22; Heb. 1:3). This action shows both the completion of Christ's work of redemption and his reception of new authority as God-man to reign over the universe. Christians presently share in this session of Jesus at God's right hand (Eph. 2:6) largely in terms of sharing in spiritual authority over demonic forces (6:10-18; II Cor. 10:3-4) and power to gain increasing victory over sin (Rom. 6:11-14).

In this exalted state of reigning at God's right hand, Christ will reign until the end of the age, when all his enemies will be conquered (I Cor. 15:24-25).

Return in Glory

When Jesus Christ returns to the earth in glory, his exaltation will be complete, and he will receive all the glory that is due to him as the God-man who has purchased our redemption and is worthy of eternal and infinite honor. Whether this future culmination of Christ's exaltation occurs in only one stage (as amillennialists hold) or two stages separated by a millennium (as post- and premillennialists hold), all agree that Jesus Christ will some day return to the earth to reign in triumph (Acts 1:11; Rev . 1:7), publicly and finally to defeat all his enemies (II Thess. 1:7-8; Rev. 19:11-21), and to sit as judge of all the earth (Matt. 25:31-46; Rev. 22:12). Then his kingdom will be established forever, and, exalted with the Father and the Holy Spirit, "he shall reign for ever and ever" (Rev. 11:15; 22:3-5).

W A Grudem
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

Bibliography
L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology; E. A. Litton, Introduction to Dogmatic Theology; C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, II, 610-38.



The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in December 1997.

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