Our Lord’s Crucifixion as Exaltation

Years ago I was asked to deliver a Good Friday evening message. The pastor of the host church made great pains to apprise me that the service was to highlight the “bitter herb” of our Lord’s death, and there was to be no sense of joy or rejoicing, which would be appropriate only later, on Easter Sunday. He also told me that his church gravitated toward and was filled with very “broken” people, overcome with hardship and grief. I inferred that his “bitter herb” Good Friday meeting was designed to appeal to these people. I thought at the time, and am increasingly convinced, that this approach is tragically one-sided, and it robbed his members of a glorious, inspiring biblical truth about the crucifixion: The crucifixion is about grief and humiliation, but it is equally about joy and exaltation.

We don’t often think that at his death, Jesus Christ was exalted, but he was. It’s easier to understand his death as humiliation. For example, we read of our Lord in Philippians 2:8,

And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.

In Gethsemane, he agonized in prayer, contemplating his substitutionary suffering for sinners. On the Cross itself, he suffered as no other person has every suffered, not only because of the excruciating pain of crucifixion, but because the sins of the world were placed on him (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:24). “It is difficult for modern people to appreciate the immense shame attached to this public humiliation.”[1] But this cruel shame could not compare with the unspeakable load of sin-sacrifice that he carried.  The crucifixion was a horrific humiliation the world has never seen or will ever see again.

The exaltation of attracting the world

But is no less an exaltation than a humiliation. To focus on the crucifixion only as a “bitter herb” is seriously to distort the biblical picture. Jesus himself made this clear when he declared

“And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” (Jn. 12:32)

The Bible uses spatial metaphors to depict both humiliation and exaltation. Isaiah declared (6:1):

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple.

In Psalm 138:6 we read: 

Though the LORD is on high,

Yet He regards the lowly;

But the proud He knows from afar.

Examples could be multiplied. Lowness is the place of humility, and highness is the place of exaltation. So when Jesus prophesied that he would be lifted up in death, he was asserting that he would be exalted.

The universality of the gospel

The exaltation of the crucifixion consists first in its salvific magnetism to the world. While crucifixion as an act is repellant, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is attractive. How? It saves the world (Jn. 3:16; 1 Jn. 4:14). The gospel is not a message of universalism (that all people will ultimately be saved; this is obviously false), but it is a message of universality. The gospel is designed for all people everywhere, to reverse the sin that entered history at Eden. If sin is universal, so is the Cross.[2]

This is why Paul’s parallel between the first Adam and the second Adam (Jesus Christ) in Romans 5:12-21 is so vital. Adam acted for the entire race, and so did Jesus Christ.

Therefore, as through one man’s [Adam’s] offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s [Jesus Christ’s] righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life (v. 18).

The Paul who teaches election so uncompromisingly in Romans 9 can hardly be teaching that just as Adam’s sinful act condemned everybody, so Christ’s righteous act of the Cross justified everybody without qualification. Here is the contrast: “But the free gift is not like the offense” (v. 15, emphasis added). Adam’s unrighteous act enslaved all his posterity to sin; but Christ’s righteous act doesn’t enslave all his posterity; it gifts. We become servants of righteousness only by an act of faith (Rom. 6:10–18). The Cross presents us with the incomparable gift. Sin dehumanizes and removes man’s will from the picture (2 Tim. 2:26). Righteousness restores man’s will to obey. It re-humanizes us. The message of the exalted Cross goes out to all humanity.

We must look this truth squarely in the eye without flinching. The Bible teaches both corporate election (Israel [Isa. 45:4], the new covenant church [Col. 3:12]) as well as individual election (Eph. 1:5). God chooses his people to salvation, and they can choose him only because he chose them first (Jn. 15:16; 1 Jn. 4:19).

Election is not the gospel

But election is not the gospel, and it is never preached as the gospel in the Bible: “Truly, these times of ignorance [pre-Christian era] God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent” (Ac. 17:30). “And He Himself [Jesus Christ] is the propitiation [an atonement that appeases] for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:2). “And He [Jesus] said to them [his apostles], ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mk. 16:15). The effects of the gospel are selective, but the preaching of the gospel is indiscriminate. We can (and should) tell every human: “Jesus died for you, and if you repent and trust in him, he will save you.”

The crucifixion is exaltation in that it graphically displays to the world that God in Jesus Christ is saving nothing less than the world.

The exaltation of trouncing and humiliating the principalities and powers

Second, the crucifixion exalted Christ in that he disarmed and humiliated the Satanic powers. Listen to Colossians 2:14b–15:

And He [Jesus] has taken it [the old covenant] out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.

The Bible teaches that fallen beings stand just behind the curtain of the visible world and do the bidding of their arch-master Satan (Eph. 6:11–12). Though sinners are responsible for their evil lives, they play the role scripted and directed by their unseen diabolical puppet masters.[3] Until Jesus Christ came, they had capacious freedom of operation first unleashed in Eden. They were the usurping rulers of the world.

It seemed that Jesus was the one lowered and humiliated at the crucifixion. What the watching world — and Satan himself — did not yet know is that it was Satan and his entire usurping empire that was dispossessed and humiliated at the Cross. The Cross inaugurated the new (and final) world order.

But Jesus came to bind this insurrection and plunder this demonic house (Mt. 12:26–30). Jesus engaged in “cosmic politics”:[4] he dethroned the demonic powers that had usurped God’s earthly throne in Eden. He crushed Satan’s head on the Cross. To add another metaphor: he kicked out the squatting diabolical landlord. While at his resurrection he publicly gained victory over the enslaving power of sin, at the Cross he disarmed the ruling powers of sin.

The real behind-the-curtain humiliation

Jesus made a “public spectacle” in vanquishing the demonic powers. At first glance, this is hard to understand, because to anyone viewing the crucifixion that day, it was Jesus the Messiah who was disarmed and humiliated. He was the public spectacle.

However, his deepest work that day was not to save individual sinners, but to break the powers that enslaved sinners so that they could not be saved. Christ’s death saves sinners not just by paying the ransom for their sin but also, in doing this, breaking the power of Satan to enslave: “[T]he debacle of Satan is the first meaning of Jesus Christ.”[5]

It seemed that Jesus was the one lowered and humiliated at the crucifixion. What the watching world — and Satan himself — did not yet know is that it was Satan and his entire usurping empire that was dispossessed and humiliated at the Cross. The Cross inaugurated the new (and final) world order.

The theology of the cross and glory

Martin Luther famously contrasted a theology of the Cross with a theology of glory.[6] By theology of the Cross he meant the gospel arising from the suffering and humiliation of the Cross, fostering a deep helplessness in sinners by which they can turn in their grief to Jesus Christ and him alone. A theology of glory, by contrast, was the gospel of late medieval Rome, a gospel of pride in good works and great pomp and joy in the church and in human achievement. Suffering and sacrifice are at the heart of the gospel, and if we lack them, we lack the gospel and the Christian Faith.

This taxonomy is not incorrect, but it is incomplete, like certain parts of Luther’s other theology. Yes, the sinner must see his helplessness before God, and his hope in nothing else but the crucified (and risen and reigning and returning) Christ. But the gospel isn’t just a message of individual salvation; it’s also the message of the abolition of the old global order of Satan and the powers and the installation of the new godly global order. It’s a message not just of individual suffering and humility but also of cosmic healing and victory. This is the new Christic order.

Man is saved because of that new order. And it can be the message of individual salvation only because it’s the message of global salvation. It is the message of the exalted One on the Cross, who draws all humanity, and who vanquishes and humiliates the Satanic powers. The gospel is not just a theology of the Cross. It is a gospel of glory, and it can be a theology of the Cross precisely because it is a theology of glory. Above I cited Philippians 2:8 about our Lord’s crucifixion as humiliation. But now note verses 9–11 —

Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The crucifixion as humiliation stands in closest proximity to crucifixion as exaltation. It would be convenient to assume this exaltation happened only at the resurrection or ascension, and it certainly happened at both. But Paul doesn’t say precisely when the exaltation happened, and from the two passages we’ve considered, we have reason to believe it was on the Cross that Jesus was exalted: “It was through Jesus’ work [on the Cross] that God made him known as the one who is Lord.”[7]

The theology of the Cross is the theology of glory. Better yet: the Cross is the glory (Gal. 4:16). The crucifixion is exaltation.

Order here

[1] Douglas R. A. Hare, “Cross, Crucify,” in The Westminster Theological Wordbook of the Bible, Donald E. Gowan, ed. (Louisville and London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 97.

[2] By “cross,” the biblical writers often mean more than the crucifixion; they mean the entire complex of redemption, including the resurrection. When Paul wrote that he boasted only the Cross (Gal. 6:14), or preached only the crucifixion (1 Cor. 2:2), he did not mean that he excluded the resurrection, without which there can be no salvation (1 Cor. 15:1–4; 16–19).

[3] E. Gordon Rupp, Principalities & Powers (London: Wyvern Books, 1965).

[4] Lewis B. Smedes, All Things Made New (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 33.

[5] Ibid., 34.

[6] Martin Luther, “Heidelberg Disputation,” Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, Timothy F. Lull, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 42–45.

[7] John G. Gibbs, Creation and Redemption (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1971), 85.

Author: P. Andrew Sandlin

I am founder & president of the Center for Cultural Leadership, core faculty of the H. Evan Runner International Academy for Cultural Leadership and De Yong Distinguished Visiting Professor of Culture and Theology, Edinburg Theological Seminary, and an ordained minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity. I am happily married to Sharon Lynn Sandlin (nee Habedank) and have five adult children and four grandchildren.

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