Jesus wasn’t always in the flesh.
John 1:14 reminds us that "the Word became flesh." Becoming flesh means Jesus existed before His incarnation. In our quest to prove the veracity of God becoming man so that as a man, he could do what only God could do, we sometimes caper right past the beauty and mystery of one aspect of the incarnation’s import. Before it, Jesus didn’t have skin.
When John claims that “in the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word was God,” he is implying that Jesus had been around long before his earthly arrival. Before the God-man was a God-baby, he existed eternally in perfect community with the triune God outside of time and space.
In the incarnation, Jesus resolved to lay aside the majesty of his deity to take upon himself man’s likeness and a servant’s form. Before that moment, Jesus had only existed in his preincarnate glory. He was in the form of God, according to the apostle Paul. The early church father John Chrysostom affirms, “The form of God is truly God and nothing less. Paul did not write that he was in process of coming to be in the form of God; rather ‘being in the form of God,’ hence truly divine.” Jesus has always been truly divine but his divinity hasn’t always donned flesh.
So from the vantage point of finite beings and though Jesus has no beginning, we see that the God-man’s timeline “began” before his advent in an earthly manger (or a cave, if that’s your take). And as we deal in beginnings and endings to make sense of the sacred, we can’t lose that the preincarnate Christ’s pre-skin context was the harmonious community of the Godhead in heaven. His ex nihilo eternality is necessarily an essential in understanding the gospel’s content. You have to have a Jesus who was in the form of God eternally before he was in the form of man to do what only the God-man himself could have done—make a way for the soul to be rid of it’s one dark blot.
We love to sing in our church community.
We heartily belt it out in our retrofitted fellowship hall Sunday after Sunday. One of the songs we routinely revisit says, “When Satan tempts me to despair/And tells me of the guilt within/Upward I look, and see Him there/Who made an end to all my sin.” I recall when I first sang these lines, I thought I was singing about the cross. It was my gazing upon the cross that could recalibrate my vacillating spiritual discouragement. While that can be true factually, those lines aren’t about peering at the crucified Jesus on a cross. There about something entirely different. They are about looking at my resurrected and ascended Jesus in heaven.
Now, I can’t literally look up and see Jesus in heaven. It exists in an unseen dimension at the moment. But what these lines point to is the reality that Jesus currently resides in the eternal home from whence he came. He has returned to his divine community—but not in his preincarnate form. No, he has returned as one who possesses a resurrected body that “made an end to all my sin” and is now exalted to the place of highest honor—God's right hand. That is the God I am to “see” when I sing those lines. But without the ascension, I can’t look to Jesus in that way. Without it, we omit another crucial aspect of comprehending the thrust of the gospel message. Jesus is back in heaven. And that means something.
There are three primary passages which give us the historical record of the ascension of Jesus: Mark 16:19, Luke 24:51, and Acts 1:9. And while there are many themes we could extract from these texts, in my opinion, one stands out above the rest. John Calvin put it best when he said, “For as soon as God’s dread majesty comes to mind, we cannot but tremble and be driven far away by the recognition of our own unworthiness until Christ comes forward as intermediary, to change the throne of dreadful glory into the throne of grace.” Christ as intermediary. Christ as advocate. Christ as intercessor. No ascension—no throne of grace. Only a throne of dreadful glory that we can’t approach boldly. But Jesus.
The gospel is one thing.
The singular, immovable story of the living, dying, and rising Christ is what the gospel is. Among the swath of “gospel-centered” this and that, the good news of the gospel has been and always will be this one, solitary thing: the bona fide narrative of the crucified and risen Lord.
“Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures. . . . He was buried. . . . He was raised on the third day.” As God’s spokesperson to his Corinthian friends, this is the message Paul hand-delivered to them and the truth his friends willingly received. “Of first importance” was this baseline historical actuality. And Paul pleaded with the church in Corinth to not exchange anything in the place of its foremost position in the soul.
So, it’s good and right to say that the bottom line of the gospel that saves, is saving, and will save is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And as one who is thrilled about the resurgence of gospel declaration and application, let’s be careful, though, not to sell our christological chronology short. There is a more holistic message of good news amidst the proverbial “gospel-centered” forest. Yes, the gospel is nothing less than the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus but it’s also something more.
As we look to the preincarnate and ascended Christ, we don’t see arbitrary happenings in the life of Jesus but rather indispensable elements on his eternal timeline. His departure from his heavenly home and his return to it matter. They ultimately matter to the gospel message. It’s the gospel’s full circle. Without them, we have no Savior and no Advocate. With them, we have the unsearchable riches of Christ. Praise be to God.
Brad Andrews serves as pastor for preaching, vision, and missional leadership at Mercyview in Tulsa, OK and as a religion columnist for the former Urban Tulsa Weekly. He also was one of the ten framers of The Missional Manifesto, alongside Tim Keller, Ed Stetzer, Alan Hirsch, Eric Mason, J.D. Greear, Dan Kimball, Linda Berquist, Craig Ott, and Philip Nation. He blogs often at mercyview.com/blog.