There is nothing more central to the gospel than the cross of Christ. But the cross does not stand in isolation. It only has saving significance in conjunction with three other events. The crucifixion is inextricably bound up with the resurrection, ascension and enthronement of Christ in his work of salvation.
Take any one of those four elements out of the equation and the whole structure of redemption collapses. If there was no resurrection, then the atonement is redundant. If there is no ascension, redeemed humanity is abandoned to a sin-cursed world. If there is no enthronement, the Saviour lacks the authority to save.
When Jesus asked the Father to glorify him with the glory that was his with the Father before the world began (John 17:1-5), it was this entire sequence of events that he had in mind, as the steps that were necessary for that prayer to be answered.
As the cross represented the nadir of his humiliation in the place and for the sake of sinners, so the heavenly session secured for him and for them the restoration of the glory God intended.
The Bible’s definitive statement about the resurrection is found in 1 Corinthians 15. It is the chapter that begins with Paul identifying those elements of the gospel that are ‘of first importance’ (15:3). Tamper with any of these and we destroy the hope of salvation.
He refers explicitly to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus (15:3-4) and then implicitly to his ascension/enthronement in his post-ascension appearance to Paul on the Damascus Road (15:8).
He speaks of them all as historical events that happened ‘according to the Scriptures’, but which in turn form the basis of salvation past, present and future. As he begins to tease out the implications of these events, it is fascinating to note that he dwells, not on the cross (despite having said at the start of this letter that he preaches nothing but ‘Christ and him crucified’), but on the resurrection.
The immediate reason for that was in part the fact that there were some in the Corinthian church who were denying the possibility of resurrection (15:12). The apostle obviously needed to address that problem at a local level; but the amount of space and detail he devotes to his answer indicates there is far more at stake than the Corinthians could ever imagine.
He sets out in the first place to establish the historicity of Christ’s resurrection, citing the multiplicity of witnesses who saw, heard and touched him during the 40 days of post-resurrection appearances (15:4-8) and states that the proclamation of this fact formed the centrepiece of the message the Corinthians had first believed (15:11).
He then goes on to challenge the claim that resurrection does not happen. His reasoning could not be more forceful: ‘If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith’ (15:14).
The resurrection was not an invention of the early Christian community, but a fact of history. Out of all the Gospel writers, Luke devotes the most space to the account of the resurrection and the many public appearances Jesus made in the 40 days that followed.
As we move into Acts — the second volume of his historical record — we cannot help but notice that the importance of the resurrection continues to feature prominently. It is there at the heart of every major sermon or discourse recorded in Acts and was clearly a vital component of the gospel message as it spread.
However, of even greater interest is the fact that it becomes a key element in the court proceedings that crop up again and again in Acts, as the apostles are put on trial, first before the Jewish and then the Roman authorities.
Given the legal context of proceedings, the factuality of the resurrection claims is open to cross-examination all the way from the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem to the supreme court of Caesar in Rome.
If the story of the resurrection had been a myth, it would not have been difficult to produce the bones of Jesus to prove it, or dismantle the testimony of those who claimed it to be true.
Paul builds on this historical foundation by spelling out its implications for salvation. He states that Christ was raised ‘the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep’ (15:20). In other words, he is the part-for-whole guarantee of the future bodily resurrection of all who put their faith in him.
A salvation that is merely spiritual — in terms of both present and future experience — would be a salvation that is sub-human. For it to be complete, it must involve the resurrection of the body for believers when Christ returns, and that can only happen because Christ himself is risen.
Throughout history, the opponents of the Christian faith have targeted the resurrection in particular in their efforts to discredit and destroy the gospel, but they have failed. This most extraordinary event in history is the guarantee of hope in the face of eternity.
It seals all that Jesus accomplished on Calvary and allows Paul to taunt death and the grave about their powerlessness (15:55). The resurrection lies at the very heart of redemption history.
The next decisive moment in Jesus’ journey from humiliation to glory is his ascension. Luke records the eye-witness testimony of the event as seen by the eleven disciples who were present.
In a way, it is tempting to skip straight from Easter Sunday to Ascension Thursday in our reflections on the exaltation of Christ, but to do so would be to miss at least one other important detail: the fact that Jesus’ resurrection body is the same, but different.
It is the same as his pre-resurrection body in that it is physical, but it is different in that it is not immediately recognisable. Mary, the disciples on the road to Emmaus and others who saw him after he emerged from the tomb did not immediately realise it was Jesus.
That was not merely because they were so overwhelmed by the reality of his death that their brains were overriding what they were seeing; but there was actually something qualitatively different about him.
On the one hand, he was visible, tangible and capable of eating and drinking; but on the other hand, he could appear and disappear without the use of doors or windows. He still bore the marks of nails, thorns and a spear, but nevertheless was different.
He himself hints at what that difference entailed when he said to Mary Magdalene, ‘Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father’ (John 20:17). In other words, although he had already been exalted through resurrection, that exaltation was not yet complete.
Paul fills in the blanks for us, in 1 Corinthians 15, when he describes the resurrection body of the last Adam [Christ] as being a ‘spiritual body’ (15:42-49). What he means by that is not that it was some kind of spectre; but, rather, a body suited to the realm of the Spirit — that is, heaven.
The body with which Jesus emerged from the tomb was a body that belonged to the world to come. It was absolutely right and proper for him to reveal himself in that body for that 40 day period, to confirm that he was indeed alive and to allay the fears and suspicions of his followers. But it would have been entirely inappropriate for him to remain in this present world in a body that belongs to a future world.
That was the body/new humanity he took into heaven when he ascended. Even here we need to stop and question ourselves as to how we understand what we mean by that. The creed’s wording, ‘he ascended into heaven’, echoes what the angels said to the astonished disciples who were gazing into the space into which they had just seen Jesus disappear (Acts 1:10-11).
But what does ‘into heaven’ mean? J. I. Packer makes some pithy observations on this in I want to be a Christian (Kingsway Publications; Eastbourne, 1977, pp.53-57). He rightly points to the cloud in which Jesus was enveloped as being the key to understanding all that was going on.
Far from being merely an unexpected fog that engulfed Jesus at that moment, it was nothing less than the glory-cloud, that in the Old Testament is synonymous with the presence of God. That is entirely consonant with the primary meaning of ‘heaven’ in Scripture, the ‘endless, self-sustaining life of God’ — perfection.
But there is more to it. If the secondary sense in which ‘heaven’ is used in the Bible is ‘men and angels sharing the life of God’, then Jesus’ taking his resurrected body into that cloud was his restoring our humanity to where it really belongs.
Movie-goers are well used to the ‘coming soon’ previews of films that are yet to be released. The resurrected Christ is the ultimate trailer for what is yet to come. He is, as Ian Hamilton says, ‘the prototypical man’.
The ascended Christ takes us beyond what Adam was in Eden to what Adam was meant to become had he fulfilled his duty to our race. So our hope of salvation extends as far as heaven itself, where we in Christ will perfectly share the life of God for all eternity.
The ascension is far more than just the next step in Jesus’ journey home; it is nothing less than the guarantee of homecoming for all who put their trust in him.
Then there is the affirmation that the risen, ascended Jesus is at this moment ‘sitting on the right hand of God the Father Almighty’. He is enthroned in heaven; he is reigning on high.
One of the most amazing little details in Luke’s account of the earliest days of the New Testament church in Acts is the fact that a mere seven days after his Ascension, Peter declares that Jesus is ‘exalted to the right hand of God’ (Acts 2:33) as the supreme fulfilment of all that God had promised to and through King David.
That same note is sounded again in Hebrews when the author says of Jesus that after the ordeal of the cross, ‘he sat down at the right hand of the throne of God’ (Hebrews 12:2). He is exercising God’s executive rule over the entire world and universe.
In the language of Paul, ‘Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2:9-11).
The One whose appearance and true identity were obscured and marred almost beyond recognition through his incarnation and then his crucifixion, is now exalted to his rightful place as Saviour-King of the world.
He is there directing all things for his people’s good (Romans 8:28), providing for their needs and protecting them from evil. But even greater still is the fact that his enthronement gives warrant to our faith. He is the One alone who has authority to save.
Those who look to him will never be put to shame. There is one other little detail in all this that cannot be overlooked. It is that Christ’s enthronement means our enthronement too.
Paul tells the Christians in Ephesus, ‘And God has raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace’ (Ephesians 2:6).
Christ restores in us our true dignity and authority as human beings. He equips us for his service in this world. He prepares us for the perfection of the life to come in the future world he has promised for his children.
The cross is indeed central to the message of the gospel, but it does not stand alone. It is only as we follow Jesus through the cross to the empty tomb, the cloud of glory to the throne of heaven, that we see the full picture the gospel paints and the ultimate hope that is found in Christ alone.