Historical Origin of Divine Christology. Part 2 – Exaltation Christology in Luke-Acts

I. Luke 22:69
It was understandable that Caiaphas demanded an explicit answer from Jesus to the question whether he was the Messiah. Perhaps a display of miraculous power would be in order. After all, God will not abandon his Anointed One in the face of deadly opposition. But Jesus refused to call upon legions of angels to rescue him. What could Jesus be thinking about himself, his relationship with God and his mission when he allowed himself to be arrested and abused by his enemies?

Jesus refrained from any public declaration of himself as the promised Messiah because he did not want to pander to the political and nationalistic expectations of the Jews. His ambiguous answer to Caiaphas was intended to expose the insincerity of his questioner. Nevertheless, he was fully assured that he was God’s chosen servant despite facing adverse circumstances. It is significant that Jesus corrected the high priest by substituting the ‘Son of Man’ for the ‘Messiah’. By referring to the ‘Son of Man’, Jesus answered the question on his own terms and stressed the transcendent character of his mission against all political misinterpretations. /1/

The addition of ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν (from now on) also underscored Jesus’ unwavering faith that God would vindicate his Messianic claims, not only at the parousia but very soon after his trial. Indeed, Jesus spoke of a new age, a new phase of existence for himself as beginning with this vindication. /2/ He will soon be revealed as one enthroned at the right hand of God. The image of the right hand of God denotes more than some concept of location. It connotes divine power often linked to creation and rule of the world and almost always to salvation (e.g., Rev. 1:16, 20; 5:1, 7; Odes Sol. 8:5-6; 14:4; 18:7; 22:7; 25:2-3; 28:15; 38:19-20). The “power of God” refers to God in all his majesty and greatness. Therefore, the phrase, “seated at the right hand of the power of God” is a sign of supreme divine honor bestowed upon Jesus. He is co-ruler with God. /3/ Naturally, the Sanhedrin understood Jesus’ claim to this special relationship with God as a blasphemous claim.

The word καθήμενος (seated) indicates not the beginning of his enthronement but its continuance. /4/ We must allow Psa. 110:1, ‘seated at the right hand of the power of God’ to interpret the quotation from Dan. 7:13, ‘the Son of Man’ in terms of realized eschatology. The regal claim of Christ already reigning in heaven will not fail to bring assurance to Christians who have to endure the world’s hatred – that they too, will receive God’s final vindication. /5/

II. Acts 2:33-36
It would be natural for any early Christian preacher instinctively to gloss over the tragic end Jesus suffered. Peter, on the contrary, drew attention to the Jew’s responsibility in rejecting Jesus of Nazareth /6/ even though Jesus’ ministry was attested to by God with mighty works. No doubt, Jesus’ death may seem to contradict such a claim of divine legitimatization, but in fact it was no more than the fulfillment of what God had already revealed in scripture (Luke 17:25; 24:26). Jesus died as predetermined by God, /7/ but the Jews were nevertheless still held responsible ἀνείλατε (put him to death). We see here how divine necessity, ἔκδοτον (delivered up), goes hand in hand with human responsibility (Acts 2:23). /8/

Peter’s purpose was to point his audience beyond the cross, to God’s final act of raising Christ. In this respect however, it was apart from any action of men or even of Jesus himself. The raising of Jesus proved that he is the savior and Lord to whom men must look for salvation since he now exercises his reign as one exalted to the right hand of God (τῇ δεξιᾷ οὖν τοῦ θεοῦ ὑψωθείς). /9/ As confirmation of his proclamation, Peter appealed to the apostolic eyewitnesses (Acts 2:32), the Spirit’s coming as manifested in visible signs (Acts 2:16ff; 2:33) and to the scripture (Old Testament) texts.

We may outline the logic of Peter’s reading of the texts of Psa. 110:1 and Psa. 16:8-11 /10/ as follows. (1) David as a prophet knew that the Messiah born from his own descendants would rise from the dead. (2) We cannot apply the resurrection found in Psa. 16:10 to David personally, since it was not fulfilled in his own case. David died and was buried and his grave stands as undisputable evidence of the fact. (3) On the other hand, Jesus was raised from the dead; he was not abandoned in Hades and he did not see corruption. /11/ (4) Conclusion: Psa. 16:10 must be fulfilled in Jesus. We must, however, note that the real thrust of Peter’s argument was not to prove the fact of the resurrection, but rather to show that Jesus, in rising from the dead, gave evidence that he is truly the Messiah of which the Psalm spoke. By raising Jesus from the dead God has confirm that he is the Christ.

The same logic is also discernible in Peter’s treatment of Psa. 110:1 which answers the question as to whom “my Lord” actually is. (1) It was not David who ascended into the heavens (verse. 34); again, cf. verse 29, where David remains in the tomb. God’s command, “sit at my right hand,” therefore cannot be addressed to David. (2) By pouring out the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, Jesus must have also ascended into heaven, since he could not have given the Holy Spirit to them unless he has first received it from the Father in heaven (cf. Psa. 68:19 and Eph. 4:8). (3) As described in Psa. 110:1, Christ must now be seated at the right hand of God. (4) Jesus is therefore the “Lord” (verse 36) invited by God to take his place at his right hand. As John Maile concludes, “The resurrection is, therefore, the Christological watershed of Luke-Acts, for it is the resurrection which has made Jesus Lord…This is borne out by Acts 2:32-36 which shows that when God raised the Jesus who had been crucified, this included as an integral part of that act his being exalted to the right hand of God and his reception of the Spirit.” /12/

The confession of Jesus as Lord serves as the climax of Peter’s speech. Although Jesus was condemned by ignorant men, he was vindicated by God in his exaltation. “God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). In this first recorded sermon of Jesus’ apostles, Peter calls Jesus Lord and Christ. Note the parallelism between the Old Testament where “Lord” denotes God, and the New Testament where Jesus’ followers call Jesus both “Lord and Christ”. Peter clearly states that it is God and not the church that made Jesus both Lord and Christ. In short, the resurrection is the occasion where God declares Jesus is indeed the Christ, who is the sovereign Lord (see also Rom. 1:4).

J.A.T. Robinson has understood the word ἐποίησεν (translated ‘made’) as proof of an adoptionist Christology in the early church, i.e., Jesus became ontologically what he was not before. /13/ He adds that this exaltation Christology represents a later stage in the evolution of Christology. The claim that Jesus was merely adopted as God’s heavenly co-regent during the resurrection ignores Luke’s record that Jesus is proclaimed as Saviour, Messiah, Son and Lord from his birth (Luke 2:11; cf. Luke 1:31–35, 43; 3:22). C. Kavin Rowe, who regards Luke-Acts as a connected literary corpus, notes that “Jesus is already named κύριος while still in the womb (Luke 1:43)…In fact, Luke is at pains throughout the entire Gospel to narrate Jesus’ identity as ὁ κύριος upon the earth… When thus situated, it becomes apparent that Acts 2.36 does not mean ‘it was only at his resurrection and ascension that God made Jesus Lord and Christ’, that there was a change in Jesus’ status, that he became something he was not before. On the contrary, Acts 2.36 confirms the already-established identity of Jesus as κύριος in the face of his rejection and death.” /14/

Robinson’s claim not only ignores the narrative framework of Luke-Acts, it is also implausible as it assumes an incredibly naïve Luke who failed to perceive his own inconsistency in placing two differing Christologies side by side. Furthermore, Longenecker has pointed out that the word in functional context has the sense of “appointed” (1 Sam 12:26 (LXX); 1 King 12:31 (LXX); Mark 3:14; Heb. 13:2). /15/

We fully agree with Longenecker’s more accurate and balanced conclusion that both functional and ontological overtones are present, viz. “… (1) that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is God’s open declaration that the messianic work has been accomplished and that Jesus now has the full right to assume the messianic title and (2) that the exaltation of Jesus is the proclamation of his lordship, which God calls all to acknowledge.” That Jesus is the Christ /16/ means that he is the fulfillment of Israel’s hope and the culmination of God’s redemptive program. As exalted Lord /17/ he has authority and power over every rebellious power in the world. That the title appears in several quotations from the Septuagint as referring to God (Acts 2:20, 21, 25, 34; 3:22; 4:26; we have also Acts 2:29; 3:19; 4:24, 29; 7:31, 33 referring to God) is indeed of greatest significance. /18/

III. Acts 5:31
The exaltation of Christ demands an appropriate response from the Jews, as Peter reiterates in his defense in Acts 5:30. “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” The language used here is similar to Acts 2:33 but with emphasis that the exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of God as Prince and Savior is that he might save Israel from impending judgment. The disciples are bringing a message of life since the exalted Jesus is now the Author of life (ἀρχηγός, is translated the Author of life in Acts 3:15; Heb. 2:10). /19/ The vindication of Christ (verse 30) is a vindication of the disciples’ preaching. /20/

Such a vindication of the disciples’ message is also supported by Stephen’s vision (7:56). In this vision, Stephen is granted confirmation of and a challenge to his faith and preaching. Jesus himself as the Son of Man will vindicate in God’s presence those who are not ashamed of him and acknowledge their allegiance to him even before hostile men (Luke 12:8). /21/

IV. Acts 13:32-37
For Paul, Jesus must not be separated from God’s saving action in the history of Israel. Hence, he began his sermon with a review of salvation-history: Israel’s election, the liberation at Exodus and the Promised Land. Above all, the raising up of leaders to lead and to save Israel in her continual battle for survival also provided an excellent backdrop for Paul to proclaim a message of Jesus Christ as Savior. It also allowed Paul to claim that the resurrection of Jesus constituted what God has promised to the Fathers (verse 32).

Some scholars have concluded that ἀναστήσας Ἰησοῦν (he raised up Jesus, verse 33) refers not to the resurrection but to the appearance of Jesus in his earthly existence as a prophet, i.e., in the sense that God will raise up a prophet like Moses (Deut. 18:15, as in Acts 3:22 and Acts 7:37). They back up their position by noting that the qualifying phrase ἐκ νεκρῶν (from the dead) for ἀναστήσας in verse 33 is missing, unlike in verses 30 and 34. However, if ἀναστήσας does not mean Jesus’ resurrection, then the train of thought is broken because verses 30 and 34-37 do speak of the resurrection of Jesus and any reference to Jesus’ earthly life is certainly out of context. The absence of ἐκ νεκρῶν is not unusual as it is implied (cf. Acts 2:24, 32). /22/

Peterson explains why this verse refutes the claim of adoptionist Christology. “Son” in the context of Psalm 2 is to be understood as a royal and messianic title…Applied to Jesus and his resurrection, this psalm suggests that his resurrection-ascension brings him to the full experience of his messianic destiny in a heavenly enthronement and rule (cf. Rom. 1:3–4; Heb. 1:3–5). In this context, Paul says nothing about the preexistence of the Son of God (cf. Rom. 8:3; Gal. 4:4–5; Col. 1:15–20), though such teaching needs to be taken into account when seeking to give a full account of what it means to call Jesus the Son of God (cf. Luke 1:31–33, 35; John 1:1–18; Acts 9:20). In other words, it would be wrong to take this text in isolation and suggest that the exalted Jesus was merely adopted as Son at this point in time.” /23/ Put in Christological language, “Jesus has always been the ‘Son of God’ ontologically, that is, with regard to His being, but God specifically declared Jesus to be his Son when he raised Jesus from the dead and appointed him to be the Davidic ruler (Psa. 2:7; Acts 13:32).

Much has been made out of an ‘absentee Christology’ /24/ since C.F.D. Moule, who noted that the risen Christ has little direct dealings in the world; he is in heaven at the right hand of God. But this is to overlook the great variety of ways by which the exalted Christ reigns and acts among Christians. It is also to dichotomize the work of the Holy Spirit from the exalted Christ. /25/ It effectively empties the reign of Christ of much of its significance.

The resurrection of Christ gains greater significance when we realize that verse 33 is a verbatim quotation of Psa. 2:7 in the LXX (cf. Acts 4:25; Luke 3:22; Heb. 1:5; 5:5). In the Old Testament context, the Psalm gives a description of the nations’ conspiracies and the rulers’ attack upon the Lord and his anointed. This is paralleled by verses 27-29. But since Psa. 2 ends with God’s intervention and the appointment of the Anointed to universal kingship, we must not see Acts 13:33 as merely a resurrection. It was the fulfillment of God’s promise to David that David’s house will be everlasting (2 Sam. 7:14-16), as indicated by the quotation from Isa. 55:3 in verse 34. We concur with C.S.C. Williams that, “…the raising up of Jesus here is probably not merely a reference to His resurrection but also to His coming and His glorification.” /26/ Above all, it is a proclamation of Jesus as the Son in eternal and universal lordship. /27/ Hence, the exaltation and universal lordship of Jesus is the foundation for Paul’s mission of salvation to both Jews and Gentiles.

V. Conclusion
The explosive growth of the early church is remarkable, and no doubt owed much to the unshakable convictions of the early Christians. They believed firmly that despite the early rejection and murder of Christ by the religious leaders of Judaism, it was according to divine plan. The suffering Messiah was vindicated and exalted to the right hand of God. These early Christians themselves were the privileged eyewitnesses to Christ’s exaltation either by meeting him in his post-resurrection appearances or through the visions given by the risen Lord. They could appeal to the prophecies and promises given beforehand for support, especially in Psa. 110, and anchored their experiences (certainly belittled by skeptics as mere subjectivism) in objective teaching of scriptures.

The exaltation of Christ is also the key to the question of how the proclaimer (Jesus of Nazareth) became the preached Christ. There can be no dichotomy between the historical Christ and the kerygmatic Christ (Martin Kahler) because the vindication of Christ is a contrast between the Jesus who suffered in the hands of godless men and the Christ who was raised to the right hand of God. One must express puzzlement over critics’ like Robinson and Bart Ehrman (who adds a caveat claiming that his view acknowledges the ‘exaltation’ of Christ) characterize the Christology of Acts as adoptionist Christology.

The Christology of the early church is not a result of abstract speculations but it was grounded in the total complex of the events of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection. Not surprisingly, it constitutes the major components of the early church kerygma which C.H. Dodd had isolated. We are not surprised to see that the major discourses above all climaxed in an invitation toward repentance and the acceptance of a salvation made certain in Christ.

It is true that we do see a greater emphasis on the oneness of Christ and his church in the more ‘inclusive’ Christology of Paul, e.g., to persecute the church is to persecute Christ (Acts 9:4, 5). But we must not forget that for Luke, Christ fills the church in order to lead it to further his mission. Christ had merely begun his work of actualizing his universal lordship (Acts 1:1). He continues to direct his followers, to empower and protect them in the thick of spiritual opposition. Finally, because Jesus’ own mission was vindicated by the Father in his exaltation, believers may rest assured that they, too, will receive their final vindication.

/1/ “Since he is a heavenly being, the Son of Man is actually more closely related to God than Messiah. Jesus’ rejection of the Messiah title therefore by no means indicates a rejection of his claim to an elevated position. On the contrary, the claim to be the Son of Man in the sense of Daniel’s heavenly being coming on the clouds may be considered even more radical more than the claim to be a political Messiah. Jesus rejects only the political role of the Messiah-King.” Oscar Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament, pp. 120-121.
/2/ Cf. the sense of the phrase in Luke 1:48; 5:10; 12:52; Acts 18:2. As Conzelmann puts it, “The characteristically Lucan expression does not refer to the End, but to the epoch of conflict that is now beginning.” The Theology of Luke, pp. 99, 109, 116.
/3/ Ferdinand Hahn writes, “…exaltation denoted principally the special dignity bestowed by virtue of an act of enthronement and the installation in a position of power, not mere ascent into heaven.” The Titles of Jesus in Christology: Their History in Early Christianity, p. 129.
/4/ Contra Hahn, Titles of Jesus, p. 130, who argues that because there is no mention of an interim between the trial and the parousia, then Jesus’ session will begin only at the end of the world.
/5/ W.F. Flender notes the significance of the Lukan shift to exaltation, “…The development of the text from Mark to Luke shows that the real problem exercising the community was not the continuation of time but the certainty of Christ’s final victory.” St. Luke: Theologian of Redemptive History, p.102.
/6/ Jesus of Nazareth is a common title in Luke (Luke 18:37; Acts 3:6; 4:10; 6:14; 10:38; 22:8; 26:9).
/7/ The perfect participle ὡρισμένῃ emphasizes a state of completion.
/8/ Ernst Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 180.
/9/ F.F. Bruce, Acts (The commentary on the Greek text) p. 95 and Rackham, Acts, pp. 27-28, translate τῇ δεξιᾷ as instrumental, “…raised by the right hand of God.” But Haenchen, Acts, p.183, n. 1, agrees with Blass-Debrunner, ss. 199, that it is entirely possible to assume both here and in Acts 5:31 the dative of place. The use of the passive ὑψωθείς also suggests that in Jesus’ enthronement he himself is passive while God is the active agent.
/10/ Richard Longenecker, Acts, p. 279, notes that Peter is applying the second midrashic exegetical rule (middot) by Rabbi Hillel, viz., gezerah sewah or verbal analogy: where the same words appear in two separate passages, the same consideration applies to both. In this case, the words are “at my right hand”.
/11/ Haenchen here attacks Peter (Luke) for a loose handling of the text, “διαφθορά, meaning deterioration or putrification is a mistranslation taken from the LXX, which made an erroneous derivation of שָֽׁחַת (a pit) (to spoil).” Haenchen, Acts, p.182, n. 1. But if one examines the MT’s use of שָֽׁחַת (pit) one sees from the same context that the meaning of bodily decay is included, e.g., Job 17:14, 15a; Isa. 38:17. Furthermore, in the LXX, שָֽׁחַת is often translated by διαφθορά (Psa. 9:15; 16:10; 30:10; 55:24; Job 33:28, 30; Ezek. 19:4, 8).
/12/ John Maile, “The Ascension in Luke-Acts.” Tyndale Bulletin 37 (1986), p. 45.
/13/ J. A. T. Robinson, “The Most Primitive Christology of All?” in Twelve New Testament Studies, pp. 139-153. Likewise, in Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, pp. 225-235.
/14/ C. Kavin Rowe, “Act 2:36 and the Continuity of Lukan Christology.” New Testament Studies, 53 (2007), p. 51, 54.
/15/ Longenecker, Acts, pp. 746-747.
/16/ “Christ” is used twelve times in Acts. The frequent occurrence in the articular form shows that it was used as a title rather than a proper name, indicating the primitive character of Peter’s Christology.
/17/ Kyrios is used of Jesus in Acts as he summons men to obey in visions and dreams (Acts 9:5, 10-17, 27; 18:9, 10; 22:19; 23:11; 26:15). It is central to the church’s faith (Acts16:31; 20:21), baptism (Acts 8:16), prayer (Acts 7:59-60) and obedience (Luke 6:46; 9:61). The word ‘Lord’ is interchangeable with ‘king’. The expression “my Lord” is a common Old Testament designation for the ruling king (1 Sam. 22:12; 26:17; 1 King 1:13, 24; 2:38; 20:4; 2 King 6:12; 8:5; Jer. 37:20; 38:9; Dan. 1:10).
/18/ Culllmann, Christology of the New Testament, p. 236, “The designation of Jesus as Kyrios has further consequence that actually all the titles of honor for God himself (with the exception of ‘Father’) may be transferred to Jesus… then no limitations at all could be set for the transfer of divine attributes to him.”
/19/ C.K. Barrett writes, “In Acts 5:31 the sense of founder and protector (σωτήρ) is probably best, and this also fits the contrasting structure of the present verse [Acts 3:15]: him who was bringing life into the world, and thereby establishing a new age, or reign, you put to death.” Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, p. 198.
/20/ Acts 2:31-36 and Acts 5:30-31 imply that there is no sharp distinction drawn between Jesus’ resurrection and his exaltation. The witnesses of the resurrection are as much witnesses to the exaltation, since both these can be understood as a single event (G.E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, p. 371). As such, we find the distinction advocated by W.F. Flender too subtle, “The determinative cause of the future resurrection of the individual Christian is not the resurrection of Jesus himself but his exaltation. It is because Jesus has been exalted to the right hand of God that he can be the leader or initiator of the resurrection of the dead… The resurrection of Jesus is offered to the individual as the eschatological message of the new life in Christ, while the exaltation of Jesus is Jesus’ entrance into the divine world.” W.F. Flenders, St. Luke: Theologian Redemptive History, p. 19.
/21/ The description of Jesus standing rather than sitting at God’s right hand is so unusual that it must be significant. Of the many suggestions given, the following two are most plausible: (1) Jesus rises from his throne to welcome Stephen into heaven; (2) Jesus rises in the heavenly courtroom to act as an advocate on Stephen’s behalf, the view held by I. H. Marshall, Acts, p. 149. For further discussion, see David M. Hays, Glory at the Right Hand: Psalm 110 in Early Christianity, pp. 73-74.
/22/ For a full discussion, see Evald Lovestam, Son and Savior: A Study of Acts 13:32-37, pp. 8-11. Some, like R. B. Rackham, try to avoid the issue by taking ἀναστήσας to be two-fold in meaning: “He was raised up, like Moses and David in his incarnation and birth and He was raised up from the dead.” But surely this is a surrender of the integrity of the context for the sake of peace. Cf. The Acts of the Apostles, p. 216.
/23/ David Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 392.
/24/ C.F.D. Moule, Studies in Luke-Acts, p. 180.
/25/ For a balanced picture, see R.F. O’Toole, “Activity of the Risen Christ in Luke-Acts,” Biblica 62 (1981): 471-498.
/26/ C.S.C. Williams, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 164.
/27/ Because of Christ’s universal lordship, Paul finds it the legitimization for bringing the message of salvation also to the Gentiles. Robert F. O’Toole argues that Acts 13:46d-47 is the central point of the chiasm (verses 44-52). Cf. “Christ’s Resurrection in Acts 13:13-52,” Biblica 60 (1979), p. 371.
/28/ Cf. C.H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Development, pp. 17-24. Joseph Fitzmyer writes, “It is important, however, to stress at this point that the “ascension” of Christ is scarcely a Lucan creation or invention…the exaltation is already pre-Lucan, even if the graphic details of its mode are not.” “The Ascension of Christ and Pentecost.” Theological Studies 45 (1984), pp. 420-421.

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