This article is about the humiliation and the exaltation of Jesus Christ in his life on earth.

Source: The Outlook, 1980. 3 pages.

The States of Christ

To the Christian Jesus Christ is all-important. Everything we know about Him is precious and essential. We consider His two natures (human and divine) and bow in awe while our hearts rejoice. We meditate on His name and titles (Jesus, Christ and Lord) and we are comforted. We analyze His triple office (Prophet, Priest and King) and rejoice in God's gracious gift of a complete Savior. How meaningful that title Christian then becomes!

But there is another distinction, one that is at the very heart of our confession: the states of Christ — His humiliation and exaltation. Five of the twelve articles of the Apostles' Creed — the Church's con­fession through the centuries — focus on this aspect of the doctrine of Christ. We confess that Jesus Christ "...was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary..." These very familiar words and the words that follow them outline the states of our Mediator.


What do we mean when we speak of the states of Christ? Often we think of "state" and "condition" as being synonyms — and sometimes they are. We may speak of "a state of shock". But there is also a sense in which these are not synonyms. "State", in this case, refers to one's position in life and particularly to how that person stands in relation to the law. Is he guilty or is he innocent? "Condition" has to do with the resulting way of life. Louis Berkhof illus­trated it in this way:

One who is found guilty in a court of justice is in a state of guilt or condemnation, and this is usually followed by a condition of incar­ceration with all its resulting deprivation and shame.Systematic Theology, 331

What, then, do we mean when we speak of the states of Christ? Very simply, we are speaking about His relation to the law as He does the work of salvation for God's elect.

M. J. Bosma wrote:

There are only two relations toward the law possible; a relation of innocence or of guilt; everybody is either innocent or guilty. If inno­cent the law protects and advances, if guilty the law condemns and brings suffering on the head of the transgressors. The innocent are at liberty, are free and defended by the powers of justice. The guilty lose their liberty and suffer the penalty of the law at the hands of the powers of justice.Exposition of Reformed Doc­trine, 161

In Adam all have transgressed God's law (Romans 5:18, 19). All are guilty. Jesus Christ came to take the place of God's elect so that they would know sal­vation. Thus, Jesus had to take our place before the law, too. As our Substitute He had to be judged guil­ty and He had to be liberated from the curse of the law.

Taking the place of God's elect as they stood before the law Christ had to experience two dif­ferent stages: the state of humiliation and the state of exaltation. Briefly put, in the state of humiliation Christ merited salvation for us, and in the state of exaltation He now applies it to us.

The State of Humiliation🔗

In the state of humiliation we find Jesus Christ subject to the demands of the law as a rule for life and, also, under its condemnation. He had to perfect­ly obey God's demands. Only by perfect obedience would He be able to redeem those whom God gave to Him, those who were under the law (Galatians 4:4, 5). In the state of humiliation, then, Christ was ac­ting as servant "for us men and for our salvation" (Nicene Creed).

As Paul was led by the Holy Spirit to write to the Philippians about the unselfishness which should characterize Christians he wrote a significant state­ment about Christ's humiliation.

Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, existing in the form of God, count­ed not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, tak­ing the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross.Philippians 2:5-8

The word "emptied" in this significant passage has been at the heart of theological discussion through the centuries. Generally, there have been two ways of understanding this.

  1. When the Son of God became man, His deity was abandoned. He gave up His divine nature. One writer has called this "in­carnation by divine suicide."

  2. When the Son of God became man, He gave up voluntarily His position of being on an equality with God. He did not cease to be God but He "gave up his environment in glory. He took upon himself limitations of place (space) and knowledge and of power, though still on earth re­taining more of these than any mere man" (A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, IV:444)

The first explanation given makes Christ basical­ly human and able to err. Obviously, this does not square with the facts about Jesus Christ given in the New Testament. The second explanation takes into account that Jesus had to be mighty God all the way through His state of humiliation in order to complete the work of salvation.

William Hendriksen in his Exposition of Philip­pians (pp. 107, 108) lists the following as particular meanings of this second explanation:

  1. He gave up his favorable relation to divine law. While he was still in heaven no burden of guilt rested upon him. But at his incarna­tion he took this burden upon himself. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

  2. He gave up his riches (2 Corinthians 8:9). He gave up everything, even himself, his very life (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45; John 10:11)

  3. He gave up his heavenly glory (John 17:4). From the infinite sweep of eternal delight in the very presence of his Father he willingly descended into this realm of misery, in order to pitch his tent for a while among sinful men.

  4. He gave up his independent exercise of authority. In fact, he became a servant, the servant. (Hebrews 5:8). He said, "I do not seek my own will, but the will of him who sent me" (John 5:30).

Then, Hendriksen adds, inpatiently we voice an objection, namely, "But if Christ Jesus actually gave up his favorable relation to the divine law, riches, glory, and independent exercise of authority, how could he still be God?" The answer must be that he, who was and is and ever remains the Son of God, laid aside all these things not with reference to his divine nature but with ref­erence to his human nature, which he voluntar­ily took upon himself and in which he suffered all these indignities (p. 108).

Philippians 2:5-8 teaches this when it says that the Son of God took "the form of a servant" (v. 7b) while He retained the form of God.

Indeed, in Christ's humiliation "He humbled him­self" — he really and voluntarily abased Himself for us! This humiliation went so deep that He went all the way to death of the cross, the death of a male­factor. What grace!

The State of Exaltation🔗

Entering, then, the position of guilt before the law and experiencing the resulting punishment, He satisfied the law and was then in a position of in­nocence toward the law. Having to suffer no longer, Christ entered into liberty and joy. Now, lifted up to honor and glory He is in the state of exaltation.

This state Paul also describes in Philippians 2. He continues in 2:9, 

Wherefore also God highly exalted him, and gave unto him the name which is above every name; that in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The Greek word for "highly exalted" is used only here in the New Testament. It means that Christ was elevated "in a transcendently glorious manner" (Hendriksen, loc. cit.). He received a position of greatest honor and majesty. Why? Because He had been utterly obedient and thus victorious over sin, death and the grave. He had completed the necessary work of redemption. Hendriksen writes:

The exaltation is the reversal of the humilia­tion. He who stood condemned in relation to the divine law (because of the sin of the world which rested on him) has exchanged this penal for the righteous relation to the law. He who was poor has become rich. He who learned obedience has entered upon the actual adminis­tration of the power and authority committed to him (loc. cit.).

What is the significance of Christ's exaltation?

  1. He was lifted up in the highest honor and great­est glory.

  2. He no longer bore our sin and guilt. Now He is the Possessor of all righteousness.

  3. This was the reward of His perfect obedience in His humiliation.

Through this exaltation, then,

  1. God declared that Christ had met the law's demands and was en­titled to His reward,

  2. Christ showed what will hap­pen to believers because of His death, and

  3. believers will know the promised perfect glorifica­tion.

But even now we can say: Thanks be to God for His unspeakable Gift!    

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