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The Two "States" of King Jesus: Exaltation and Humiliation — An Excerpt from "Crucified King"
In his book The Crucified King, Jeremy Treat writes, "From the cradle to the cross the life of Jesus is clearly one of humiliation." (157)
And yet, he goes on to explain "Scripture reveals, and the eye of faith perceives, that even during his time of humiliation he is being exalted, glorified, and enthroned as king." (157)
Humiliation and exaltation are known as the two "states" of Christ's life. The common understanding of these two states is that Christ experienced first the state of humiliation, then the state of exaltation. However, Treat proposes an alternative view: "the proper view is exaltation in humiliation within a broader progression of exaltation through humiliation." (156)
In the excerpt below, Treat explains why the "humiliation then exaltation" dichotomy is a mistake, and why exaltation in and through humiliation is the best way to understand the person and work of Christ.
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Exaltation Through Humiliation
In response to the common understanding of exaltation after humiliation, I propose that the proper view is exaltation in humiliation within a broader progression of exaltation through humiliation. “Exaltation in humiliation” breaks down the typical dichotomy by demonstrating that Christ is exalted supremely in his redemptive suffering, the apex of which is his death on the cross. “Exaltation through humiliation” maintains a general progression from humiliation to exaltation while at the same time showing how they overlap and are interrelated.
The argument will be based on Scripture and theology and will draw from Calvin and Barth in order to revise the interpretation of humiliation and exaltation as strictly successive temporal states. Calvin and Barth both differ from the linear schema and offer a middle way between the Reformed and Lutheran positions, affirming the simultaneity of humiliation and exaltation with the idea that Jesus is humbled in his divinity and exalted in his humanity. Though I will draw from both in arguing for exaltation in humiliation, I will part ways with Barth—who ultimately dismisses the doctrine— and follow Calvin in maintaining a broader temporal progression.
Exaltation in Humiliation: Integrating the States
The primary mistake of the standard view of the states of Christ is that it polarizes humiliation and exaltation. The simplistic view of humiliation then exaltation simply does not do justice to the breadth of Scripture’s witness— namely, that Christ is exalted before the resurrection and humble after the crucifixion. Not only do humiliation and exaltation overlap in Christ’s work, but they both find their apex in his atoning death. Below, I will break down the dichotomy of “humiliation then exaltation” by showing that Christ is exalted before the resurrection and remains humble after the crucifixion, and that the overlap of humiliation and exaltation finds its apex at the cross.
Exaltation Before the Resurrection
From the cradle to the cross the life of Jesus is clearly one of humiliation. However, Scripture reveals, and the eye of faith perceives, that even during his time of humiliation he is being exalted, glorified, and enthroned as king. The most common and explicit way Scripture speaks of Christ’s pre-Easter exaltation is with the language of glorification. Far from being reserved for his resurrection and ascension, the glory of Christ is displayed from the moment of the incarnation, for as John declares, “The Word became flesh . . . and we have seen his glory” (John 1:14). Though hidden to sinful eyes, “He is the radiance of the glory of God” (Heb 1:3, italics mine). In Cana Jesus “mani- fested his glory” through his first “sign” (John 2:11) and through the trans- figuration he “received honor and glory from God the Father” (2 Pet 1:17).
In the transfiguration, where the disciples “saw his glory” (Luke 9:32), they were given a preview of what would be fully revealed in the resurrection. Jesus himself says, “My Father . . . glorifies me” (John 8:54) and later speaks of “the glory that you have given me” and even “my glory” (17:22, 24). Finally, Jesus refers to his own death as “the hour . . . for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12:23) and “lifted up” (12:32), thereby combining glorification and exaltation and centering them on the cross. As Paul would later say, they “crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:8). Clearly in Scripture, Christ is glorified and exalted as king before the resurrection.
Rightly understanding the person of Christ is essential for his pre-Easter exaltation. In accordance with Chalcedonian Christology, Jesus is not only truly God and truly man, but his two natures are united in his one person (the hypostatic union). This means, first of all, that he as the God-man is exalted and glorious in his divinity. The majestic glory of Christ’s divinity, though “concealed and not exerting its force,” was by no means absent from his per- son during his ministry on earth. His humanity need not be subsumed into his divinity (the Lutheran tendency) nor treated in isolation from his divinity (the Reformed tendency) but in union with it. As the eternal Son of God he does not need to be exalted, but as the incarnate Son of God he is exalted for us.
Christ is also exalted before the resurrection in his human nature. Although truly human, Jesus was not just any human. According to Calvin, Christ was the human who was exalted above every other human because he was completely “without sin” (Heb 4:15) and uniquely empowered by the Holy Spirit, which was evident in his miracles and proclamation of the kingdom. Barth discusses the exaltation of the human nature of Christ under the title “the royal man,” highlighting an often-overlooked point: Christ’s kingship is attributed primarily to his humanity. God’s rule over the earth is mediatorial, and Christ is the second Adam and the Son of David, who will establish God’s kingdom and restore his people to their proper place of dominion over the earth.
The Overlap of Humiliation and Exaltation in Christ
Based on this evidence, any strictly successive interpretation of the two states—“humiliation then exaltation”—must be rejected. Temporally, there is overlap. More importantly, as aspects of Christ’s person and work, humiliation and exaltation are deeply intertwined. Barth speaks of the “inter-connexion” between humiliation and exaltation and helpfully shifts the emphasis from temporal succession to christological simultaneity: “The exaltation of the Son of Man begins and is completed already in and with the happening of the humiliation of the Son of God; and conversely . . . the exaltation of the Son of Man includes in itself the humiliation of the Son of God, so that Jesus Christ is already exalted in his humiliation and humiliated in His exaltation.”41
How can these apparently contradictory aspects be simultaneous in Christ? The key for Calvin and Barth is that Jesus is the God-man who is simultaneously humbled in his divinity and exalted in his humanity. According to Barth, “As God he was humbled to take our place, and as man he is exalted on our behalf.” Furthermore, the simultaneous humiliation and exaltation of Christ is not a contradiction because Christ always humbles himself (Phil 2:8; cf. Luke 14:11) and is exalted by the Father (Phil 2:9; cf. Acts 2:33).
In other words, Christ is not in two static states of humiliation and exaltation but is constantly humbling himself and being exalted by the Father. Calvin adds that Christ is able to retain his exalted status because he takes on the form of a servant voluntarily. In other words, Christ sovereignly accepts a mission of servitude. I conclude with Thomas Torrance that “we are not to think of the humiliation and exaltation of Christ simply as two events following one after the other, but as both involved in appropriate measure at the same time all through the incarnate life of Christ.”
By Jeremy R. Treat
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