The Gospel Message in Luke's Story of the Nativity - Chapter 6
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This commentary on Luke's story of the Nativity was written by Rev. Harry Colquhoun who has generously given permission for presentation on this site. Copyright ©

Chapter 6 - The Death, Resurrection, and Exaltation of Christ

In our last two chapters, we spoke about the renewal that comes to mankind through the redemptive activity of Jesus Christ, and in particular through his meritorious death and the power of his resurrection. These are the redemptive events which create the possibility of a new life for the individual—the possibility to be “born again,” the grace to die to the old and be resurrected to the new life in Christ (Eph. 2:1-7). (The reader will note that this renewal or new birth theme is often presented in terms of the creation theme/theology we find throughout the New Testament; for example Paul’s statement: “If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). It is a theme that speaks of the promise of renewed hope and new beginnings; of the ability to put the past behind and strike out in a new direction in life. Paul, we note, used the death/resurrection metaphor to help the initiates into the Christian faith understand the significance of their baptism as an act that symbolically represented their death to the old life (life lived in alienation from God) and their entry into a new life of fellowship with God; a life of godly and upright living: Rom 6:1-4.) By the grace of God, they are, like Christ, “raised” to newness of life.

Part 1: The Death of Christ as a Saving Event

                In this chapter we will seek to trace the process whereby the Apostles came to understand the death of Christ as a redemptive event and also to affirm their faith in his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God, and how it found its way into their message to the people. Significantly, on this first matter, the death of Christ as a redemptive event, the Scriptures are really silent. We simply find Peter on the Day of Pentecost urging his audience to, “Repent and be baptized…in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38). On another occasion, we find him affirming: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12). The clear assumption is that the message of the cross formed part of the Christian proclamation from the beginning and was its most central message. From the Apostolic preaching we also gather that the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Christ were seen as intimately connected parts, with one taking place as a consequence of the other: Acts 2:14-38.

                Certainly one could look at the Gospel of John and find there all the essential ideas of Christ’s death as a sacrificial offering made on behalf of those whom he called his “friends.” Then again there are all those other sacramental notions of Christ as the “water of life” and the “bread of life.” Add to this the statement which speak of Jesus as the “resurrection and the life.” Such ideas as these could be understood to form the basis for the message of forgiveness the Apostles preached. Yet it has to be realized that the Gospel of John is probably the oldest of the New Testament writings, and was probably written about 100 A.D., many years after the other Gospels were written. It also shares little in common with the other Gospels from a historical perspective, sharing only about 4% in common historically with them (although we should note that some authorities believe John made use of historical sources that were uniquely his own). Yet as a statement of the Christian faith, John is unsurpassed, presenting us with the Gospel message—the message of the Apostolic Faith--in a sublime and eloquent manner As such it can be seen to represent—as the date of the book appears to indicate--an eloquent expression of the Apostolic Faith in its most reflective and settled form in the Church at that time. As a work, it should be seen to reflect an understanding of the Person and Work of Christ that was gained over many years. And so it is, in this respect, the Gospel of John was seen, even from early days, to be more of a “spiritual Gospel” than anything else. John presents us with a very high Christological interpretation of the events surrounding the life of Christ, particularly in those events where he enters into dispute with the Pharisees and the other religious authorities and in his intimate conversations with his disciples. In this work, then, John can be seen to present us, not so much with a historical as with a reflective Christian understanding—an understanding that was projected backwards--of the Person and Work of Jesus, providing us with the ultimate significance of his life, death, and resurrection for the Christian believer. This doesn’t make his work inauthentic in any sense; it simply provides us with the ultimate understanding and significance of Christ’s life and death as the Church later came to understand it—and as John expressed it in his day to reach the audience of his day; that is, in such terms as Jesus as “light” and “life,” terms with which they were familiar in another context.

                How then did the disciples come to understand the death of Christ as a redemptive event, for it is obvious that the disciples had not seen Christ’s death as something that was inevitable—or had not wished to see it in those terms—or to imagine it as a vicarious sacrifice he would offer on their behalf? The common assumption is that it was the resurrection itself which changed everything for the disciples and that their understanding of Christ’s death as a redemptive event followed from that. Christ’s appearance clarifies everything for them, and they are given to understand everything in a light they had never seen it before.

                The writer feels that there is something seriously amiss with this understanding in that it places belief in the resurrection on the wrong footing in a way that runs counter to the very Biblical notion of faith. Faith that results from a demonstrated fact simply does not fit the Biblical concept of faith. To say that belief in the resurrection is founded on the physical appearances of Christ to his disciples is to make the resurrection a matter of credulity—a matter of accepting what is in front of one’s nose—and not a matter of faith; not a matter of conviction based on quite different grounds. Belief in the resurrection for the disciples, based on this assumption, is simply a matter of rational choice; a matter of accepting the physical evidence that is being presented to confirm the reality of what has taken place. But this is not believing as the Bible defines belief.

The situation is essentially the same for the Church of today, if we are to affirm that faith in the resurrection is based on the appearances of Christ to his disciples—with the only difference being that the evidences for the appearances has now shifted ground and is now based on the reliability of the testimony of the disciples. In other words, nothing has changed: belief in the resurrection is still a matter of credulity, not a matter (an affirmation) of faith. It is like saying we believe the tide is coming in because someone who has just come from the oceanfront has told us so—although it could be that the tide was already on the turn and was actually going out again. The truth depends on the reliability (the powers of observation) of the witness. So it is a matter, either of accepting the validity of the disciples’ testimony as to what they personally experienced, or, if we reject their testimony, attributing it to some other factors: delusions, hallucinations, wishful thinking, mass hysteria, misguided notions, naivete, a desperate desire to believe, or the like.

Yet, as we have already stated, faith in scripture is a matter of personal trust; a staking one’s life on certain ideas, beliefs, that one holds to be true without it being possible to rationally verify or physically demonstrate them to be true: in Paul’s words, “We walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). Or again (thinking of faith-inspired hope) he says: “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?” (Rom. 8:24). Faith inspires hope and keeps it alive until the hope is realized. And again, in Biblical terms, having an operant faith in God, a real faith, means having a deep and profound conviction in the fact that God does indeed exist, and then beyond that—and most importantly—believing that “He rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6). In other words our faith in God can not be a passive faith but has to be an active faith; one that makes a difference in how we look at life, accept life, and live out our lives on a daily basis. Anything else is simply an in-operant faith; one that doesn’t make a hill of beans of difference, one way or another, on how we live our lives or adopt our basic values in life. Then again, a faith that requires physical evidence will fail us—or should we say, thinking of Peter’s foray on to the waters—sink us; we will drown in our own unbelief if our faith isn’t strong enough to support us when put to the test.

So, in Biblical terms, when we express our faith in the resurrection we are expressing of our faith in God and trust in God, his goodness and mercy; it is a part of that “inner conviction” of those things we hold most dearly. It is part of our conviction that “God is not a God of the dead, but of the living” (Lk. 20:38). The confessional basis of faith in the resurrection is actually given clear expression by the Biblical writers when they affirm that: “God raised Jesus from the dead” (Acts. 3:15). This is not a fact-based, but a faith-based statement (an affirmation of faith). The statement doesn’t address itself to the question of how or when or in what manner the resurrection takes place but simply expresses what is essentially a statement of religious faith rooted in the disciples’ belief in Jesus as the Christ and God’s vindication of him. 

                As always, as we sought to establish earlier in our study when dealing with the details of the birth stories, reading the Bible always involves interpretation. It is a specific kind of literature and requires a thoughtful approach. In this respect, we saw that the birth stories are really stories that express what the Biblical writers saw as the hand of God at work on behalf of his people for their ultimate good. This is basically a vision of faith, a faith-based view of the events of life as seen through the eye of faith. “Open the young man’s eyes,” the prophet cries out to God. “Help him to see that those who are for us are greater than those who are against us” (2 Ki. 6:17). What the young man, the prophet’s companion, was seeing at that particular moment and causing him extreme consternation was the overwhelming numbers of the enemy surrounding them, poised to swallow them up. But God answered the prophet’s prayer, and the young man looked up (in faith) to see the chariots of the Lord circling the mountain around them for their defense.

This is the inner vision of faith; the eye of faith. The physical evidence may suggest one thing, but there is always the “But” of God.  “You crucified and killed him [Jesus] by the hands of lawless men,” says Peter to his fellow Jews on the Day of Pentecost, “but God raised him up, having loosened the pangs of death” (Acts 2:23,24).

                The writer is aware that many Christian believers today still accept the Biblical narratives on a literal, factual basis and consequently are content to accept the resurrection appearances on a factual basis. The bodily resurrection of Christ is for them the proof, the historical foundation upon which the resurrection stands—and on which the integrity (reliability) of the Bible depends. The writer has no wish to quarrel with or challenge the outlook of those who have this belief, recognizing that it is a belief that is fervently held and widely believed. Yet the reader will find that the writer, in the final analysis, shares the same vital faith with them in the resurrection of Christ but finds that such a faith does not require a “physical” resurrection, and feels that it is important to support that affirmation on the basis of a personal faith and not on the basis of proofs. The reader by now will also be aware that our understanding of the resurrection on faith terms requires a particular approach to scripture—one that the author feels, though perhaps not traditional, still upholds the integrity of scripture. It is simply a matter of interpreting the story of the resurrection as we find it in a way that accords with the “faith” basis on which the Gospel message is proclaimed. In this respect, the challenge for some readers will lie in taking another look at the way they have approached and understood scripture, for it is the author’s belief that the modern reader, rather than reading the scriptures in the light of the cultural and literary tradition of the time reads the Bible in a modern scientific, cause-effect, literalistic fashion, mistaking the symbolic and metaphoric for the literal. When we get beyond this outlook, we are then able to appreciate the rich multi-layered level of meaning there is to be found in the text. When we read the Bible in this light we can see just how the sacred writers have drawn upon the rich cultural and literary traditions of the past. The problem for many people, too, is that they are still carrying around in their heads childhood Sunday School notions of the faith and have done nothing to reach beyond such notions to gain a more mature and deeper understanding of the Christian faith for themselves. As for Biblical literacy, well there is little good to say about that. In most cases the Bible simply sits gathering dust on the shelf or lies hidden away in a long forgotten place. The Christian faith is a thinking man’s faith and requires putting one’s self to school in order to gain a reasonable understanding of the faith. As scripture itself has it, we need to work on and grow in our understanding of the faith in order to, “attain a mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). A true commitment to the Christian faith ought to motivate us into “searching the scriptures” and delving into current Christian writing by competent Christian writers. This includes making use of helpful Biblical commentary. Trying to read the Bible without the helpful aids that are out there is like trying to fix the household plumbing without the proper tools. (It can be done, but probably not very well and with extreme difficulty.)

The Basis for the Resurrection Faith:

                To begin, placing belief in the resurrection on a faith basis requires us to explore the process of reflection the disciples, we believe, went through on the road to the affirming their triumphant faith in the resurrection of Christ and his elevation to God’s right hand of power: Acts 2:32,33. In this respect, the writer feels that the primary experience as far as the disciples is concerned was not the fact of the resurrection itself but their experience of the forgiveness of Christ and that the affirmation of Christ’s resurrection and exaltation followed from that.   

                Our primary purpose in this chapter, then, will be an attempt on our part to imaginatively reconstruct for the reader the process of enlightenment and renewal, we believe, the disciples went through following the death of Christ. The reconstruction process is a lengthy one that will require patience on the reader’s part. Yet, in truth, the process has to be a lengthy one for it requires us to re-trace (historically and imaginatively) the prayerful and protracted meditative process, we believe, the disciples went through as they thought back on the journey of faith they had taken with Christ from the shores of the Sea of Galilee to the “place of the skull” (Golgotha) in Jerusalem. Only within this context—their journey with Christ from the first day he entered their lives until the moment they were tragically separated from him at Golgotha--can the Easter Event be understood. As with any other life, it is only after the individual has died, only after his story has been fully told, that the significance or import of a person’s life can be measured or evaluated. This is particularly true of Jesus in that his end was an entirely unexpected one, and was of a kind that left the disciples disillusioned, perplexed, and disheartened. Then again, the death that was forced upon him by the religious authorities was a statement of judgment on their part as to who they thought Christ was (a blasphemer and Gainsayer—a destroyer of the faith). The kind of death they inflicted on him was their declaration to the world of their final verdict on the person of Jesus (his life and ministry). As dark a judgment as one could ever make.

The question for us is: How then did the disciples get by Golgotha to ultimately arrive at the place they did—the place of triumphant faith in a crucified and risen Saviour?

                The death of Jesus was certainly seen to be the end of it for the religious authorities: Jesus and the whole enterprise which he represented. They must have turned away in silent relief after the deathblow had been struck. As far as they were concerned, Jesus had been divested of everything to which he had laid claim. The only crown this pretender to the Messianic throne had received had been a crown of thorns, and whatever “royal” adornments he possessed had been stripped from his body and left for the soldiers to gamble over. There would be no Messianic grandeur for this peasant from Galilee. For them, for those who had never “believed” in Jesus, this was the fitting end to what they had considered an evil deception and grand charade.

On the other hand, perplexed and even dumbfounded as they were by Christ’s death, the disciples, those who had believed in Jesus and had accompanied him throughout his earthly ministry, were not yet ready to let the curtain come down on the story of Christ’s life; not ready to let the verdict the religious authorities had made on Christ stand. Christ’s death they felt could not have been the end. Despite it all, their faith in Jesus lingered on and refused to die.

From the Gospels we learn that the disciples had a great sense of attachment to their Master, and, the longer they were with him, the stronger their faith had grown and matured: Matt. 16:16. While the temple authorities doubted the authority under which Jesus worked (in their prejudice ascribing it to the power of the Evil One) the disciples saw the “finger of God” at work in and through his life. The Gospel writers describe his speech as “gracious” (full of good intent and blessing for the hearers) and said that whatever he did he did “well” (bestowing health and wellbeing on those he touched). Their hearts and souls warmed to him. They felt the Presence of God around him and near him. To be in his presence was to be in the presence of the holy (Lk. 5:8).

Like Moses before the burning bush, they heard the voice of the Lord calling out to them as they listened to the words of their Master and witnessed his works. They heard the words of Divine affirmation through all that he said and did: “This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him” (Lk. 9:35). From the beginning to the end, from the moment he emerged from the Jordan ‘til his death on the cross, he appeared as One on whom the Holy Spirit, in dove-like fashion, had descended and come to rest (Jn. 1:32). He was God’s Man, anointed by the Spirit of God.

Yet Christ’s death must have given them great pause. Their faith in Jesus had brought them this far; where was it going to take them—if anywhere--now? In which direction were they now to turn? They had walked with Jesus down many roads, and accompanied him on many journeys throughout the land. Eventually that journey had brought them to Jerusalem where it had ended tragically at the place of execution called Golgotha (the skull).

Their view of Christ’s Messianic mission had certainly not included this horrific turn of events. Jesus certainly had spoken to them quite frankly about what he saw as the inevitability of his death: Mk. 10:33, 34, but the possibility of that outcome had been rejected outright by Peter: Matt. 16:22. Even at the time of Christ’s arrest, the disciples are willing to take up the sword in defense of their Master—and Peter goes so far as to slice off the ear of one unfortunate victim: Lk. 22:49-51.

The disciples must certainly have grieved deeply over their loss. They must have felt his absence deeply: the strength of his presence, the comfort of his companionship, the familiarity of his voice. Could their faith and trust in Jesus absorb such a tragic turn of events; could it be sustained? This was the real question.

As much as they fought against it, they were forced to ponder the unthinkable. Could this indeed be the end of it? Had it all been for nothing? Had Christ himself been mistaken? Had they themselves been mistaken in what they had hoped for and committed their lives to? They devoted themselves to prayer, Luke tells us (Acts. 1:14) reaching out in faith for an answer. Was there any place to go after this but home; back to the old life and to the fishing nets, or, as in the case of Matthew, life behind a tax collector’s desk? (It is a truism, is it not, that faith does not exclude doubt; that both are in play in our moments of testing.)

As we have seen, at least two disciples, dispirited and disillusioned, left the group for home: Lk. 24:13-21. Yet their defection seemed to have been based on some—what would be proven to be—misguided notions of what they had thought the Jesus-centered enterprise to be about (vs. 21). Then there is that puzzling decision on Peter’s part—even after Christ’s appearance to him—to return to the old life: “I am going fishing,” he announced to the group (Jn. 21:3). It appears that he was as yet undecided as to where his faith was going to take him. He had not yet come to that point where he could affirm: “You killed him, but God raised him from the dead.” (The fact that Peter is still undecided in his mind supports the idea of the appearances—as we think them to be--as faith-inspired visions. A “real” appearance would surely have affected Peter differently than this.) (I should also say that I tend look upon the journey these two Emmaus-bound disciples took as a reflective parable of the journey of faith the disciples themselves took on their way to a reaffirmed faith in Christ. The details below will help explain this.)

As they worked through the details in their minds and searched for answers, the cruel taunts the rabble had thrown at Jesus while he was suffering in apparent helplessness on the cross came back to haunt them: “He saved others; himself he cannot save.” “If you’re the Son of God, come down from the cross?” “He trusted in God, where is God now?” “Where are the armies of the Lord now?” Their taunts were a challenge not only to Christ, but also to their faith and belief in Jesus.

The disciples deliberated on the grave circumstances in which Jesus’ death had placed them. They continued in their prayers, meditations, and reflections.  One is tempted to think that one of the prayers of that hour was the prayer Jesus had taught them: “Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come; thy will be done….” Such a prayer, made at that hour under such trying and painful circumstances, would have stirred the disciples to the very soul.  What now of that Kingdom of which Jesus had spoken and said was “in their midst”? And what now of the Father’s will in all of this? They, too, like Jesus on the cross, were feeling a sense of God-forsakenness: Matt. 27:46.

And in their prayers and meditations they turned to what had been a source of their faith and trust in Jesus: the scriptures, the Word of God. What better place to look for guidance and direction under these circumstances? We need to remember that the Jews were “the people of the Book.” The scriptures were for the devout a lamp to their feet, and a light to their pathway: Ps. 119:105; the revelation of the mind, ways, and purposes of God. (In retrospect we can certainly say that the Scriptures certainly did prove to be for the disciples the prophetic word whose testimony to Christ became for them “a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawned and the morning star [Christ] rose in their hearts,” 2 Pet.1:16-21). I find this statement in Peter to be quite striking in that I find in the imagery (which the author is using, I believe, to describe the journey of discovery he and others took on their road to faith) a striking resemblance to the journey of discovery that I am presently mapping out for the reader.

To continue, we certainly can assume that the disciples shared with their fellow Jews, the “People of the Book,” the common hopes and aspirations the scriptures held out for the people of God, and that this had influenced their decision to follow Jesus.  After all, one doesn’t throw up everything that has given one’s life meaning and purpose (and material support) to follow every stranger who comes knocking at one’s door in the middle of day, inviting you to join him in some Quixotic adventure—not if one is still in touch with reality. What we do know is that Peter’s first contact with Christ was a momentous and personally overwhelming one. He is as overcome with a sense of personal unworthiness (Lk. 5:8) as Isaiah was in his encounter with God in the temple (Isa. 6:5). Both feel themselves to be in the presence of the holy. The experience, we can say, was for Peter a conversion experience, a profound and what proved to be a lasting faith response to Jesus.

Then again, we can safely assume that Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God—coming late in Christ’s ministry--had a scriptural basis to it: Matt. 16:16.  In other words, it was a matter of connecting (through God’s enabling grace) his own Messianic understandings derived from scripture with what he had witnessed in his daily companionship with Jesus. (An observant and intelligent reader will realize that many of the historic details as we find them in the Gospel story are in a compressed form, requiring some imaginative “filling in” and “fleshing out” on the reader’s part in order to appreciate the full dimension of the story. The “filling in” doesn’t change the meaning or central point of the story, but simply adds some necessary and helpful details that, by way of implication, are in the story, giving the story an added dimension of breadth and depth.)

In their commitment to Jesus, the disciples were simply Jewish men acting in the light of the Messianic expectations of the time. Most importantly we can certainly assume that their faith in Jesus was clarified, strengthened, and confirmed for them in Jesus’ interactions with those who questioned who he was and what he was about.

From the beginning, Jesus presents himself as no Maverick; someone who operates on his own authority and under his own impulses.

We can see, for example, how scripture helped shape Jesus’ sense of mission when he delivered his first sermon in his boyhood home, Nazareth. In support of the legitimacy of his ministry, he quotes from a Messianic passage in Isaiah to confirm his identity (for them) as the Messianic Messenger. In the destiny he chose for himself, Jesus sees himself working under the authority of scripture, and looks upon his life and destiny as a fulfillment of scripture: Matt. 26:56; Lk. 24:44. In what he does, he believes he does under the authority of God’s Word. (Unfortunately, many in the congregation that day saw only their neighbor’s carpenter son: LK. 4:22.)

It was clearly important from the Jewish perspective that Jesus be able to establish the legitimacy of his ministry and justify it on Biblical grounds. Incidentally, this is one reason why the Christian evangelists (who are addressing a Jewish audience) quote so liberally from the Old Testament. Without the authority of the scriptures to support their faith statements there would have been no point to make, and no case to prove. Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost is a good example of this: Acts 2:14-36. Along the same line, it was important also that the solution to the dilemma that had faced the disciples as a consequence of Christ’s death be demonstrated to be not one they had invented for themselves—not some desperate solution they happed upon to rescue a hopeless and desperate situation (Matt. 27:62-66) not a defense mechanism to shield them from the horrible reality of Christ’s death and the investment they had made of their lives to “follow” him.

 “Tell us by which authority you do these things?” the Pharisees asked (Lk. 20:2) clearly implying that, in their considered opinion and judgment, Christ was operating without the authority of scripture—perhaps on his own authority, but more likely, as they earlier charged, under the authority of the Evil One: Lk. 11:13.

Christ’s exasperation with their constant efforts to undermine his work is reflected in the words he threw out at them: “You search the scriptures for in them you think you have eternal life, yet they are they which testify of me and you will not come to me for life” (Jn. 5:39). In another instance we find Jesus berating the Pharisees for their failure to “read the signs of the times,” for their failure to make the kinds of connections they should have been making between the works Jesus was performing and the Messianic predictions of scripture: Lk. 12:56., what has been called the Messianic signs (the kinds of works it was believed the Messiah would perform: Matt. 11:5. On another occasion, Jesus, in dealing with what was obviously a topic of general discussion, the identity of the Messianic servant, referred his audience to Psalm 110:1, expressing his own understanding on the matter to his audience. (It is surely not without significance that this was a key verse in the Apostolic preaching in support of the Church’s confession in Jesus as Lord: Acts 2:34.) We should note that the Messianic signs of which we have spoken were just that: signs. The works which Jesus performed were obviously of a particular nature that still left his works open for interpretation. The disciples interpret them one way; his critics another: Lk. 11:14-23. Jesus was apparently not the only one performing acts of exorcism: Lk. 11:19.

Yet we know in the end he failed to convince his skeptics and was actually put to death on the grounds that he had incurred the penalty of death proscribed by scripture (Deut. 17:12) for the contempt he had shown (blasphemy) toward the Temple authorities and the outrageous claims he made for himself: Mk. 14:62-64. We notice that some of the same charges were brought against Stephen: Acts 6:14.

The importance of these observations, in terms of our discussion, is that the disciples were party to these confrontations, and so forced to think about them and make inner judgments about them themselves. As part of their response to Christ, we can be sure that the disciples were engaged at both the intellectual and practical level. They are not blind followers or mindless hangers on, but true believers—followers of Jesus under what they believed to be the guidance and authority of God’s Word. In faithful response to Christ, the disciples had demonstrated a willingness to see and hear what God was saying to them through Jesus and shown a readiness to respond to the words of Christ as the Emissary of God. This is not to say that they had a full understanding of everything they were involved in; it is simply to say that they had, at that time, made a faith response to Jesus in terms of the Messianic expectations of the day under the authority of scripture. (They are not foolhardy followers of some self-styled prophet and eccentric upstart.) Their faith in Jesus is informed by the Word of God. Unlike Agrippa, they were more than inclined to “believe the prophets” (Acts 26:27).

Yet, as we said, Christ’s death must surely have forced the disciples to think the unthinkable: had the religious authorities been right in rejecting Christ’s authority? They (the disciples) were sure at the time they had been wrong in their accusations. It was for their own reasons—prejudice and blindness mostly—they had been unwilling to accept what had obviously been the “finger of God” at work through Christ in mercy and grace. But what now of Christ’s death?

As they continued in prayer and meditation, the Spirit of God spoke to their hearts as Jesus had promised them it would do: “When the Spirit of truth comes,” Jesus said, “he will guide you into all truth” (Jn. 16:13).

In Biblical terms, what the disciples experienced was God’s enabling grace to help them find the truth they sought. Yet it is not something that came to them entirely from without, but a grace that spoke to them through the circumstances of their situation, and still in a way that required faith in God’s leading on their part—and in a way that allowed them to distinguish between their own inner voice and the voice of God. (As we search for God’s leading in our lives, we become conscious of the direction in which the Spirit of God is leading us.)  In the words of Luke, the Spirit “opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (Lk. 24:45). In Spirit-inspired reflection, the disciples “bring to mind” the particular insights Jesus had shared with them into his ministry, insights whose truth they had not at the time really comprehended (Lk. 18:31-34) but which they now, in the light of Christ’s death, were beginning to understand. (When Luke tells us that Christ’s prediction regarding his Passion was “hid” from the disciples (vs. 34) is he suggesting that God was keeping this truth from their sight but would later reveal it to them after his death—as in Lk. 24:32? It is an intriguing idea, and one that accords well with Luke’s belief in a faith as a God-given gift (as the author of Ephesians believed it to be: Eph. 2:8)

As the disciples engaged in their prayerful meditations, they began to remember the things Jesus had pointed out to them regarding the words written about him in the Law of Moses, in the prophets, and the psalms (Lk. 24:44) words that at that time had fallen on uncomprehending ears.  As these new insights flooded in on them, they certainly felt they had been foolish and slow of heart to believe the scriptures: Lk. 24:25.

One of the most crucial insights of the hour that emerged from their prayerful meditations was the new understanding they gained of their Master’s death, an understanding that changed everything for them. Their Spirit-led reflections on scripture led them to the startling realization that Christ’s death had been no accident, but something that had been part of God’s redemptive plan for his people: Luke 24:26; Acts 2:22. They came to see it and understand it not as some unfortunate and basically inescapable tragedy but as a divine “necessity” to restore man’s broken fellowship with God. It was a sacrifice that Christ had offered on their behalf.

It is possible to see how this insight could follow. Their faith in Christ had been implicit, and while Christ’s death may have caused them to falter, it had not been dealt a deathblow. They were still persuaded as to who he was and what he represented. He was the Chosen One. His death, then, must mean something. His death could not have been the end of the story. As difficult as it was for them at first to see it, Christ’s death, they realized, must have been part of God’s plan—otherwise everything that had gone before would have meant nothing. Since he had lived his life as the Messenger of God, his death, too, must have been part of the message (what was later to be the Good News of the Gospel). In some way or other God had to be in it. And in searching the scriptures, they discovered the meaning of Christ’s death.

We, of course, have no way of knowing which scriptures in particular helped the disciples gain this insight into their Master’s death. We notice from Luke that the sources for this revelation are said to be the Law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms: LK. 24:27, 44. We cannot be sure in which texts or passages of scripture, either singularly or in combination (probably combination) the disciples discovered the “glad tidings” of the Gospel message, but more than likely some of these would be the texts and passages of scripture we find quoted in the New Testament from the Old Testament to support the message of Christ’s vicarious death. We can, however, allow ourselves to be imaginative on this point and suggest the possibility that one passage in scripture that would have spoken to their hearts at that time, especially under the circumstances of the hour, was the Suffering Servant passage from Isaiah 53. (We have already noted that the beliefs of the day included the notion of a Messianic Suffering Servant.) Note in particular the reference to Isaiah 53 in Luke 22:37—a most important text as far as our discussion is concerned.

In the light of their Master’s rejection by the religious authorities and the people, the words of the prophet would have spoken loudly to them: “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted.” This was the trial and crucifixion all over again for the disciples, a stark and painful portrayal of what they had just witnessed and of which they had been a part. A combination scripture could have been Psalm 22, verse 1, and verses 16-18, painful reminders of the crucifixion. The Isaiah scripture in particular would also have provoked some very personal and painful memories for the disciples as they thought back on their own miserable failure and betrayal of their Master in his hour of need—their failure to “follow Jesus” wherever that commitment would take them: Lk. 22:33. They would have thought back with a sense of personal anguish on some of Christ’s sayings regarding those who failed in the task to which they had committed themselves: like the unwise king Jesus had spoken about, they had made commitments they had been unable to fulfill: Lk. 14:31,32; they had put their hand to the plow and turned back: Lk. 9:62. The “Sons of Thunder,” James and John, would also painfully remind themselves of the boast they had made of their willingness to drink Christ’s cup of pain and endure the baptism of suffering that he predicted lay ahead: Mk. 10:35-39.

Their meditations on Isaiah could then have taken them further, to what would have been for them the best of all possible news: “But he was wounded for our transgression, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed” (v.’s 3-5). And with these verses they would have heard their Master’s voice speak to them as he had spoken many times to those burdened with the sin and guilt of their lives: “Thy sins be forgiven thee. Go in peace.” (It is surely worth noting that in John’s Gospel, the very first words the Risen Christ speaks to his disciples are, “Peace be with you”—not words of recrimination for their cowardice and failure of heart but what they would have understood as words of forgiveness and grace.)

Whatever the source of their consolation might have been, the disciples were the first to hear the “good news of the Gospel:” Christ had died for them and on their behalf. It was this very personal experience of God’s forgiveness and grace that Peter would soon be taking and sharing enthusiastically with the people.  Jesus, the Holy and Righteous One, the One whom you rejected and asked for a murderer in his place, the One you crucified and had killed by the hands of lawless men, had actually been “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23; 11:14). The cross was a redemptive event, preordained by God for man’s salvation. It was an event to which the disciples could really witness, for they had experienced it personally for themselves. Christ had come and breathed the Holy Spirit upon them: Jn. 20:22, 23. (Notice the connection between the in-breathing of the Spirit and the forgiveness of sins in this passage.) In other words the Spirit that Christ breathes on his disciples is the Spirit of forgiveness and grace; the Spirit that witnessed to their adoption as sons of God (Rom. 8:16,17)—their acceptance back into fellowship with Christ.  And now, as those who had been forgiven, they can now go out and proclaim the message of forgiveness to others. As those who had been welcomed back into the fellowship of Christ, they can now go out, in the name of Christ, and welcome others into that fellowship, sharing with them the miracle of grace. Christ is the forgiveness of God

The message of the disciples’ conversion to Christ is essentially the Gospel message Paul preached.  It is, “While we were yet sinner Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). (For Paul this particularly meant his fanatical opposition to and persecution of the Body of Christ; for the disciples an unmitigated feeling of failure as a result of their personal betrayal of their Master. And so, each of us fills in the grounds—personal details—of our personal failure; of our rebellion against God and alienation from God. In our confession we accept God’s judgment upon us and confess ourselves to have turned our backs on him and been out of harmony with him in our lives, and, now, with contrition of heart, throw ourselves on the mercy and grace he has made available to us in Christ. Nothing is needed beyond this. Conversion to God is a simple process. All it requires is an admission of guilt and the request--made in plain and simple language as it was made by one long ago: “God be merciful to me, a sinner” (Lk. 18:13).

       The strength of the disciples’ faith is expressed in their portrayal of Jesus as the “Author of Life” (Acts 3:15) a term that appears nowhere else in the Scripture but expresses what the disciples felt about their Master. And what an “Author of life” he was. Wherever his travels took him he gave new life to those who in faith reached out to him. Everything about Jesus that the disciples had witnessed had been about life and the promise of life; the enhancement of life, the betterment of life; the fulfillment of life’s best possibilities; forgiveness, grace, new beginnings, freedom from debilitating diseases and the destructive force of sin and guilt. John expresses it best of all when he says: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (Jn. 1:4). Jesus gave people back their lives; disease and death retreat when Jesus draws near. And again, in John’s terms, Jesus is the “resurrection and the life” (Jn. 11:25); the promise of the fullness of life here, and in the life to come. And in his death, he became the Author of life to his disciples; his death had absolved them; through the grace and forgiveness of Christ, they rose victoriously to newness of life. Catch the wave as it flows through Acts 2, 3, and 4. These are men who have discovered for themselves the forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ and now share with their fellow countrymen and Jewish believers their new-found acceptance by God.

Part 2: The Resurrection

Having now recognized in Jesus the Messianic Suffering Servant, it was but one step to the proclamation of faith in his resurrection. In Luke’s words, the recognition of the one (the necessity for the death of the Holy and Righteous One) leads naturally to the other, his resurrection and exaltation: “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, for it was not possible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:23, 24).

The thinking, if we gather rightly, seems to be (at least part of it): if Christ’s death was a service he offered to God on behalf of others, then God would not—could not--then have turned away from him in death and abandoned him. God would have gone with him through the gates of death to bring him safely to what lies beyond. This truth was obviously confirmed for them in the words of David (which was seen by the disciples as a prophesy regarding Christ’s resurrection):

I saw the Lord always before me,                                                                     
For he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken;                                                             therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;                                                  moreover my flesh will dwell in hope.                                                                              
For thou wilt not abandon my soul to hades,                                                                        nor let thy Holy One see corruption.                                                                           
Thou hast made known to me the ways of life;                                                             
 thou wilt make me full of gladness with thy presence.                                                                                                      (Ps. 16:8-11; Acts 2:25)

A combination scripture, as a source of reflection and inspiration could have been Isaiah 53:10,11: “He shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; the will of Lord will prosper in his hand; He shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied.”

Peter is obviously echoing this faith (God’s vindication of his righteous servant) when he portrays Christ as the Righteous One who has suffered at the hands of the unrighteous: “But you denied the Holy and Righteous one, and asked for a murderer to be granted unto you, and kill the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:14). In Peter’s thought, God, the Righteous Judge, comes to the rescue of his Servant, delivering him from the “cords of death.” Peter has also perhaps Isaiah in mind when he depicts Jesus as the Righteous One: “By his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:11).

We should note that the Christian faith, as we find it proclaimed in the New Testament, is not built on a certain number of “proof texts” but actually on a collage of scriptures. Historically, the Messianic images these scripture presented had blurry edges to them; however, when we open the New Testament, we find that these images have all been brought together (through the enlightened wisdom of the Church) and find their central focus in Christ. That the message of the disciples is actually heard and responded to in a definite way by the people demonstrates that the disciples were not alone in thinking the way they did. They presented the story of Jesus in a way that appealed to the hearts and minds of the people. Only when Paul shares his message with his Greek audience in Athens about Christ’s resurrection is he “scoffed” at (Acts 17:32). Paul, in other words, was really speaking “Greek” to these philosophically minded listeners.

With the encouragement of scripture, then, and an undying faith in their Master, the disciples could affirm: “It was not possible for him to be held by it [death].” As God’s Righteous One, the cords of death could not hold him. God, the God in whom he trusted, and on whose behalf he had surrendered his life, would deliver him. This is essentially the Apostolic resurrection faith. It does not require an empty tomb, or a resuscitated body. It is a vision of faith. It is a looking beyond the seen to the unseen; the faith that God is not a God of the dead, but of the living; the faith that God is “above all, through all, and in all” (Eph. 4:6) that the justice of God is operant in the world and will prevail in the world; that God has not vacated his world but is still active in this world in a very personal way, and that ultimately the justice of God will triumph. The walk of faith we take through life and death assures us that God is at our right hand, and that we shall not be moved. Theologians in the sixties of the last century wrote about the “Death of God” as a reflection of the cultural situation and theological outlook of the time. Yet the simple fact is that what the writers were really describing was a loss of faith in the land. The Christian faith doesn’t work by magic; it requires the active participation of the person, an active faith, a personal trust in God to allow the grace of God to operate in life: “According to your faith, be it done unto you” (Matt. 9:29).

While we have been commented from time to time on our understanding of the story of the resurrection as we find it in the Gospels, it is perhaps necessary for us to say that, viewed from the faith-vision perspective as we have spoken of the appearances of Christ, we feel that the physical elements should be seen as a means of expressing in physical terms what essentially was an inner vision of faith, confirmed by Christ’s presence in the Spirit in their midst. “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures,” the Emmaus-bound travelers confess to each other—after Christ vanishes from their midst: Lk. 24:32. This is the language of revelation. It is the manifestation of Christ to those who turn to him in faith and trust and experience for themselves his words of forgiveness and grace: “Go in peace; thy sins be forgiven thee.” This was the Easter experience for the disciples and it is the Easter experience for all believers. As John expresses it: “He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (Jhn. 14:21).

Essentially what we are saying about the appearance stories is that we look upon them in the same way and interpret them in the same light as we did with the Old Testament birth stories. The miracle element in those stories expressed what the Israelites experienced as the miracle of God’s providential guidance and care for them as a nation. The miracle element in the resurrection stories should be seen as an expression of what the disciples knew and experienced to be the miracle of God’s grace in their lives in the restored fellowship they now enjoyed with Christ in and through the Holy Spirit. John has Jesus saying shortly before his departure: “I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever…I will not leave you desolate.” And again: “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to remembrance all that I have said to you.” (See John chapter 14.) Interpreted in the light we have suggested, John 14 expresses what was essentially the spiritual reunification of Christ with his disciples through the Spirit. This might not hold too much weight for some people in that they would feel that there is just not enough psychological power in this explanation to explain the change that took place in the disciples. But I think that objection has been answered sufficiently in the experience of God’s transforming grace the disciples underwent as we have outlined it above. That was the experience that changed everything for them.

Conversion to God is not something that gets worked out or solved on some theoretical basis. There isn’t some roadmap to be followed that says: this way to God. It’s not a matter of getting the theory down and then acting on the theory; that is, gaining an understanding of the fundamentals of the Christian faith and then stating one’s beliefs in those fundamental principles. When speaking this way one is speaking of conversion as some kind of intellectual process. And, sad to say, this is often how it is presented. I don’t think anyone ever reasons their way to God. I think it is our sense of need that drives us to God. We are driven by our hearts, not by our heads. As we reach out to God, God reaches out to us—although we will find on reflection that it is God who has reached out to us first. Anselm, one of the Church Fathers expressed it well when he said: “I don’t seek to understand in order to believe; I believe in order to understand.” With the coming of Christ into our hearts, illumination follows. First forgiveness, then understanding. Unfortunately, too many people get tied up with beliefs and lose their way. There is no reason for this to happen if we allow God, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ, to lead the way. When we are urged to “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ” in order to be “saved” we are not being urged to believe in any specific theory about Christ’s Divinity or the like. We are really being urged to throw ourselves on the mercy of God; to turn to God in faith, and commit our lives to God. What all that means (including the means by which God has made it possible) we will learn by and by. When we give our hearts to God, the Christ who is within us, the Risen Christ, will be our Teacher.   

Their Easter faith and experiences changed everything for the disciples. Christ’s death had not been the end of the road, but a point of new beginning for them and for all of God’s people. Here was a new roadmap. This is what Christ had intended for them all along. Under the authority of Christ, starting at Jerusalem (where they were at that moment) they were to go and make disciples of all nations: Matt. 28:19. As the beneficiaries of his mercy and grace, they were to go forward in his name and under his authority (the authority of God) to proclaim the Good News of the Gospel, inviting all men into the fellowship of Christ. Best of all, they would traverse the familiar and unfamiliar roads in the comfort and consolation of his presence knowing he would be with them always and for all time: Matt. 28:20.

In the light of all we have said above, a timely observation needs to be made in respect to our present day connection with the historic Christian faith. The simple fact is: how we believe—the ground upon which we believe—and what we believe is pretty much the same for us as it was for the disciples, with the exception, of course, that they actually lived in the presence of Christ. Underlying the Christian faith is faith in the reality of God; it is faith that the reality that surrounds and enfolds us is a reality that is upheld by the reality and power of God. It is based on our understanding of the world as a theatre in which the grace and mercy of God are at work for the good of humankind. Most importantly, it is world in which God has revealed himself in an ultimate and final way through the revelation of himself in Jesus Christ. It is a vision of faith. As always, “We walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). This is why Paul can say to the Corinthian Christians: We are no different you and I; “We have the same spirit of faith as he had who wrote, ‘I believed, and so I spoke.’ We [you Corinthians and we, the Apostles of Christ] believe, and so we speak” (2 Cor. 4:13). When we make our Christian confession, we make it on the same grounds and in the same fashion as the Apostles themselves did; our confession is the Apostolic Confession of Faith. This is the true Apostolic Succession; not a historical clerical succession, but a succession of faith. The Church of Christ has marched forward over the centuries on the strength of that confession and marches forward in our day and time as we give confession to and live out the Gospel faith! 


Part 3: The Exaltation of Christ

                The resurrection, however, is only one part of the Easter proclamation. A related part of that message is the message that God not only came to the rescue of his Righteous Servant but also bestowed on him a particular reward for his service to his cause (the cause of mankind) by exalting him. As to what precisely this means we turn again to both its historical usage in Israel and also to the Righteous Servant prophesies we find in Isaiah. It would be in the light of such facts that Peter’s audience would have understood the message he was bringing to them.

                We get a good idea of what exaltation means (in its strictly Biblical sense) when we learn that God exalted Jeroboam from among the people to be a leader (king) over God’s people: 1Ki. 14:7; in other words, God raised Jeroboam from his common (lowly) station in life to a place of pre-eminent honour and authority above the people. The elevation involves a change from one particular state to another; from a humble state to a state of high distinction and honour. (We will see the significance of such when we come to look at Paul’s thoughts on the exaltation of Christ.) Those so exalted, however, must always retain a sense of humility about themselves, recognising they occupy their position by divine appointment and election. When pride takes over, divine approval is withdrawn and debasement results (a change this time from a place of honour to a place of dishonour, that is, humiliation—since the individual had occupied a preferential place of distinction. Of those to be so chastised by God, Ezekiel says: “Remove the turban, and take off the crown; things shall not remain as they are; exalt that which is low, and abase that which is high” (Ez. 21:26). The classical case of someone who fell from a place of honour to a place of dishonour is Saul the first king of Israel. God raises Saul up to be his servant, but in an act of presumption and pride he  defies the directive given to him by God and chooses what he feels to be the better course of action—choosing a course of action in which he believes God would be better served than the one he had otherwise been instructed to follow. For his sin of disobedience and rebellion (tantamount in the eyes of Samuel the prophet to the sins of witchcraft and idolatory—in this case, self-worship) Saul is deposed. (See 1 Sam. Cpt. 15.) God, we are told, had chosen Saul for his humility of mind and heart (when he was “little in his own eyes”) as someone, we could say, who would serve God with the deference and humility of a servant. But pride entered his heart and he was deposed.

                The presupposition or underlying notion behind all of this is man’s subordinate (creaturely) place in this world in relation to God, his Creator, the One who upholds all things by his eternal power. In his vision Isaiah, sees God as the exalted King who sits on his throne “high and lifted up” clothed in divine majesty and splendour, his train filling the temple. The angels bow before him with shielded eyes to protect themselves from his resplendent glory. It is a moment in which Isaiah becomes overwhelmed with his own sense of deficiency and smallness; his littleness and worthlessness in the sight of God. Only by the grace of God, he realizes, can he serve God; only when God makes him fit for his service: Isa. 6:1-8. (What a lesson there is for all of us in this!) Then again, as we have seen, God can only be served as he ought to be served when we give due deference to him and maintain a sense of humility about ourselves; that is, when we are prepared, in the words of Jesus, to say to the Lord: “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty: (Lk. 17:7-10). (A Gospel reader will be quite amazed to discover how many times Jesus used the servant metaphor as a model for service to God, and rightly so for it was the role which Jesus assumed in his own service to God—a model which he encouraged us to emulate: Jhn. 13:13-17.) Nehemiah, as a servant of God, we feel has his heart in the right place when, up to his neck in the work of re-building the walls of Jerusalem, he urges his fellow workers to: “Stand up and bless the Lord you God from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed be thy glorious name which is exalted above all blessing and praise” (Neh. 9:5)—the inspiration in all probability for that wonderful hymn: “Stand Up and Bless the Lord.”

                With these thoughts in the background, we are in a better position to appreciate Paul’s depiction of Jesus’ service to God as the service of a lowly servant. We should notice, though, that the service Jesus offers to God has a significant twist to it that gives it a place of distinction all of its own. His service does not follow the traditional low/high model, but his its own distinctive high/low/high pattern which gives special meaning to the servant role. We should mention that Paul is thought to be quoting from an early Church hymn and uses the basic theme(s) of the hymn to invite his fellow Christians in Corinth to follow the same humble, sacrificial path in their service to God that Christ took in his.

                                                “Have this mind among yourselves, which you have

                                                in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God,

                                                did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped

                                                after, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant,

                                                being born in the likeness of men. And being found in

                                                human form he humbled himself, and became obedient

                                                unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has

                                                highly exalted him and bestowed on him a name which

                                                is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every

                                                knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth, and every

                                                tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of

                                                the Father”

                                                                                                                        (Phil. 2:5-11)

For Christ, the change is not simply from a lower to a higher state but from an exalted to a lower state, and then from a low to a an exalted state once more. Christ voluntarily divests himself of all the prerogatives of his heavenly (Divine) eminence, and in an act of supreme humility assumes the humblest of roles, the subservient role of a household servant (one committed to comply with the wishes of his master) and then subjects himself to what must be regarded as the ultimate degree of humiliation an innocent person can be subjected: the death of a common and despised criminal. (In our thoughts on this matter, we must always keep in mind, the common desire on our part to cling to the rags of human respectability and the limits to which we will allow ourselves to go in matters involving interests beyond our own.)  

                The reward for this act of supreme humility on Christ’s part, says Paul, is his elevation to a position of both heavenly and earthly eminence and authority. Christ is raised from the lowest depths of human infamy to the pinnacle of earthly and heavenly honour, a unique but fitting change for one who humbled himself to such an immeasurable degree. The nature of Christ’s elevation takes the form an enthronement. He takes his place at the “right hand of God” and assumes the divine prerogatives, the exercise of divine rule, and, as such, is crowned as “Lord,” has God’s own name bestowed upon him. A passage such as this brings to mind some of the great hymns of the Church, with “Crown Him with Many Crowns” being foremost among them.  

This, too, we note, is the essence of Peter’s thought. For the disciples of Christ, Jesus got the kind of reward he deserved. For the ultimate kind of service he gave to God, he was rightfully given the ultimate reward: an elevation to his right hand (the seat of Divine honour and power) where he begins his Heavenly Rule in fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel that he would give to his Servant the throne of his father David, in what would be a rule without end: Lk. 1:32; Acts 2:33. “Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly,” says Peter, “that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).

When one thinks of the exaltation of Christ, one thinks of the words of Mary in celebration of the coming of the Messianic Son:

          “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,

           has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those

                        of low degree”

                                                                                                (Lk. 1:51, 52)

No words could have been more profoundly prophetic than these words, for it is the elevation from a cross to a crown; from the depths of ignominy to the heights of heavenly honour.

In order to fully appreciate Peter’s words quoted above, we will take a closer look at the exaltation of Jesus as an expression of divine justice.

The relationship this can be seen in the identification Peter makes of Jesus as God’s Righteous Servant, a Messianic figure spoken of by Isaiah: Acts 3:14. (An observant reader of the Bible will notice that there are terms applied to Jesus in the early Apostolic preaching that are to be found nowhere else in the N.T.) Key verses identifying Jesus as God’s Righteous Servant appear to be the following:

“By his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities, therefore I will divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sins of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isa. 53:11, 12). (It doesn’t take too much imagination to see in these verses the inspiration behind Phil. 2: 5-11.)

When we then combine Isa. 53: 11, 12 with Isa. 52: 13, we can see that the rewards the Servant receives are bestowed on him because he has met or upheld the demands of divine justice; he offered himself as a sacrifice in order that others may be acquitted in God’s sight. It is the suffering of the just for the unjust: Isa. 53:5, 10.

“Behold, my servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. As many as were astonished at him—his appearance was so marred beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the son’s of men—so shall he startle many nations” Isa. 53:13, 14).

 With the above verses in mind we turn now to Peter’s words to the people:

                “The God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified

                his servant Jesus, whom you delivered up and denied in the presence of Pilate, when

                he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and

                asked for a murderer to be granted unto you, and kill the Author of life, whom God

                raised from the dead” (Acts 2:13-15).

As we read these words, we can sense the feeling of outrage in Peter’s words. For the disciples, the crucifixion of Jesus was seen and felt to be an act of a moral outrage; an act that cried out for Divine justice. The execution of Jesus was an act of the grossest proportion; one that goes against the very grain of the universe.  It is unimaginable to Peter that anyone could perpetrate such a crime against someone so obviously beloved by and approved by God.

                The injustice, however, was further acerbated by the choice the people made between Jesus and Barabbas. Having the option of calling for the release of Jesus the Author of Life—Pilate was giving them a way out; an opportunity to exercise clemency--they called instead for the release of Barabbas, a convicted murderer. They chose the one who had taken life for the One who gave life—the One who had come to put people’s broken lives together again and set them on the path to life. (Please refer to our discussion above on Jesus the Author of life.) The disciples also thought about Jesus meekly submitting himself to the inhumane treatment that was inflicted upon him--especially in face of the trumped up (unjust) charges that were brought against him by the people in power who were anxious to see him dead. In the words of Isaiah, the disciples saw Jesus as the innocent lamb “lead to the slaughter” and as the submissive sheep, who quietly submitted himself to the forceful—and in his case--violent hands of the shearer, stripping him, Abu Graib style, of his human dignity.

Jesus, however, was not just one more innocent victim in the long and cruel history of the world: he was God’s Righteous Servant; the One who had—as the disciples discovered: “Bourne our griefs and carried our sorrows;” the One who had been: “Wounded for our transgressions,” and “bruised for our iniquities,” the One upon whom the chastisement was inflicted that “made us whole,” the One by whose stripes “We are healed.”

                                Because of his righteous suffering, the suffering of the just for the unjust as a means of bringing us to God (1 Pet. 3:18) God has rewarded Jesus. He has met the demands of divine justice, offered himself as a satisfaction to God on our behalf. God has rewarded him accordingly with the highest honour he could bestow. This was the reward the prophets of God (the scriptures) had promised to God’s Righteous Servant, and so, in their heart of hearts, the disciples knew God had so honoured him.

                As to the ins and outs of all of this, the how’s and why’s, of Christ’s atoning death, well these are questions that I believe transcend human comprehension and our ability to understand them—what the Bible refers to as mysteries. Yet we do have a basic feeling that wrongs have to be put right and amends  made for past wrongs. Yet we also feel that these moral wrongs are of such a perverse nature as to be irremediable, beyond our power to make them right, and that only God, through his grace in Christ, can set the wrong right and allow us to put our past behind us. The message of the Gospel is the message of God’s liberating grace in Jesus Christ; of the freedom through God’s grace to make a new life for ourselves—that same liberation and freedom the disciples had come to know.

In the light of their resurrection faith, the world itself became a different place for them. The dark cloud of doubt and death had lifted. They felt themselves to be once more in living contact with their beloved Master: Jhn. 20:20. Everything they had believed about their Master was confirmed for them in the experience of grace they had undergone, and they now saw him and fully understood him to be God’s Righteous Servant of prophetic expectation. Everything in the journey they had taken together served to remind them of that: the concern he had shown for the marginalized and the outcasts of society, the encouragement he had given to people, the lives he had transformed by his healing touch, the desperate and sin-sick from whom he had lifted the burden of guilt now served to confirm that Jesus was God’s man, the Righteous Servant who had “Bourne our griefs and carried our sorrows;” the One who had been “wounded for our transgressions” and the One by whose stripes “we are healed.”

Now God had given him the place of honour at his right hand and placed the rule of heaven in his hands; God had given him a Kingdom, a rule of righteous and justice, a world in which “the wolf and lamb will feed together” and the lion “eat straw like the ox,” a world free from hurt and the force of human destruction (Isa. 65:25) and a rule without end.

Everything they had believed about the world as God’s world and about God’s rule of justice in the world had been confirmed for them in Jesus Christ. As men of faith, men had who believed in God and lived in faith and trust in reliance on the mercy and goodness of God, as those who had shared their nation’s hopes and expectations, the disciples found in Jesus of Nazareth the fulfillment of their nation’s  dreams. In his face (his life and work) they had seen the face of God. And in his death God had drawn them to himself and enfolded his arms around them. The God who had commanded the light to shine out of darkness had now shone into their hearts in a new act of creative redemption giving “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).

 So it is with us. Through the gracious gift of the Spirit, Christ is present to us and in us and we are granted the “blessed assurance” of our adoption into the family of God and know ourselves to be embraced by the fatherly love of God: we know God truly to be our Father: Rom. 8:14-17. This is the reality of the Pentecostal experience of every believer, the experience which every Christian believer shares with the disciples of Christ as a celebration of the coming of the Spirit—like a mighty wind—into their lives. This is our personal Pentecost. 

The coming of the indwelling Spirit within us marks the day of our re-birth, our born again experience as the adopted children of God. The “first day of the week” for us (Lk. 24:1) the day of new beginnings in our lives is the day when Christ dawns in our hearts and in his light, the light of him who is the true light, the light that lightens every man that cometh into the world (Jhn. 1:9) we awake and rise to newness of life. Through the grace of God, we are given to share in the exaltation of Christ; we are raised up with Jesus and “made to sit with him in the heavenly places” (Eph. 2:6).

 This is the message of Easter. It is a message of the exaltation of Christ and, through Christ, the exaltation of man. This is the grand design of God’s work in Jesus Christ, the full and complete restoration of mankind. God raises us from the dust, from the ignominy of the painful shortcomings and personal failure of our lives, and, through the miracle of his grace, raises us up (exalts us) to a place of honour and distinction in his eyes: we are reconciled to God and live in fellowship with him; restored and re-made in the image of God in which we were created: Col. 3:10. Christ made himself like unto us (impoverished himself) that we through his poverty might become rich: 2 Cor. 8:9. God’s work in Christ means for us a complete reversal of our personal fortunes. This is the Gospel message; a message of renewal: a renewed life, and with it a renewed vision and a renewed hope: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, the things God has prepared for those who love him.” If the people outside the Church knew what God was offering them in Christ Jesus, they would be lined up down the street to get into the place. But we are not to wait for that: we have been instructed to fulfill our charge and go to them, “to make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19).

As the heavenly reigning Monarch, he will reign, says Paul, until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy Christ will destroy will be the enemy which man fears perhaps more than any other: death itself; the mortal foe that casts the veil between us and the hope of life beyond (1 Cor. 15:25,26). And at the end, he will submit himself to God’s supreme authority (1 Cor. 15:28).  In all things connected with Christ, God is over all, in all, and through all (Eph. 4:6; 1 Cor. 15:24). Christ’s victory is God’s victory; his rule is God’s rule; his reign God’s reign.

Theological Reflection on the Death and Resurrection of Christ.

Theologically the death, resurrection and exaltation of Christ belong together. Each element is a  part (inextricable part) of God’s saving event in Christ. This truth finds its best expression in the affirmation of Paul: “Christ,” he said, “died for our sins and was raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). The resurrection faith gives expression to God’s vindication of his Servant and of the offering he made on our behalf. It is the affirmation that Christ’s death was not simply another case of a martyr’s death—a sacrifice of the self made to God for the service of God—but a sacrifice made in God’s name and on God’s behalf for others. Because he lives, we live also.

The writer to the Hebrews spends a great deal of time belaboring the fact that Christ’s sacrifice was of a special kind, not the least of which depended on who the person was who made the offering and so the type of sacrifice that was made. The sacrifice of Christ is, in fact, the offering made by a Son (the Divine Son) who died and yet now lives forever (the resurrection of Christ is implied—yet never mentioned).  As the Risen Christ, he stands at God’s right hand making eternal intercession for us: Heb. 7:25. As a sacrifice made by a Son (the resurrected Son of God) it is an eternally meritorious sacrifice.

Most importantly for our observations, it is upon his entrance into heaven, our writer tells us, that Christ accomplishes his atonement for us. This is simply another way of saying that cross, resurrection, and exaltation all belong together; they are parts of the one saving event. Forgiveness does not come through a dead Christ, but through an ever-living Christ who stands in the presence of God (an exalted Christ) offering eternal intercession for us (1 Cor. 15:17). His ministry is an eternal ministry; his reign of mercy saves us now and for all time.                                                                                                                       

Introduction  |  Chapter 1  |  Chapter 2   |   Chapter 3   |  Chapter 4   |  Chapter 5   |  Chapter 6   |  Chapter 7

This commentary on Luke's story of the Nativity was written by Rev. Harry Colquhoun who has generously given permission for presentation on this site. Copyright ©