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3. The Present Work of Christ in Heaven (Part 1)

Article contributed by www.walvoord.com

In considering the present work of Christ, the dominating fact is that Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father and that primarily His present work is a heavenly work. Because Christ is, however, also omnipresent, it is legitimate to consider certain aspects of His work as done on earth. There is naturally an integration of all that Christ is undertaking to do in the present age even though His heavenly work is distinguished by the fact that it is accomplished in virtue of His position at the right hand of the Father, and His earthly work is accomplished from His position as indwelling the church.

It is considered normal in the theological discussion of the present work of Christ to think of it as principally an expression of His office as priest. While undoubtedly this is an important aspect, it is not difficult to demonstrate that this is only a partial analysis of His present work. Many of the present undertakings of Christ do not have the character of a priestly work and, in fact, His work as our high priest is only one of seven figures used in the Scripture relating Christ to His present ministry. These seven figures suggested by Lewis Sperry Chafer in his Systematic Theology are as follows:(1) the last Adam and the new creation; (2) the head and the body; (3) the shepherd and the sheep; (4) the vine and the branches; (5) the chief cornerstone and stones of the building; (6) the high priest and the royal priesthood; (7) the bridegroom and the bride.

The Last Adam and the New Creation

The work of Christ as revealed in the figure of the last Adam and the new creation cannot be related exclusively to either the heavenly sphere or the earthly sphere. It rather involves the broad divine purpose for Christ’s present ministry which includes both. The ministry of Christ as the last Adam is part of a whole family of doctrine which includes such important aspects of Christ as His position as the head of the new creation in contrast to Adam as head of the old, the doctrine of imputation, the distinctive purpose of God for the church, the relation of Christ to the human race as a whole, the dominion of the world as given to Christ and similar doctrines. The purpose of this discussion will be to present the concept of Christ as the last Adam and His present work related to it.

The term last Adam is found only once in the Bible (1 Cor 15:45) and is generally considered synonymous to the expression second man, found also in this passage in 1 Corinthians 15:47. The idea involved in this terminology is that Christ is head of the new creation composed of all those who are in Christ as compared to Adam, head of the old creation, composed of all those who are in Adam.

The term new creation occurs only twice in the Bible (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15), but the doctrine relating to it is discussed under other terminology elsewhere. The concept of creation (Gr. ktisis) is found quite often in the Bible (Mark 10:6; 13:19 ; Rom 1:20; 8:22 ; 2 Pet 3:4; Rev 3:14). The thought behind it, of course, is that the entity involved is a creation or a work of God. When the word new (kainos) has the thought of new in respect to quality, it is to be contrasted to neos which is new in the sense of being recent. While the new creation chronologically follows the old, the thought is not that it is new in time but new in quality and, therefore, a distinct work of God.

The new creation in the two instances found in the Bible seems to refer in both cases to an individual person who is in Christ as a new creature. The thought is that just as the old creation partakes of physical birth, the sin nature, and spiritual death in Adam, so one who is a new creature partakes of new birth, a new nature, righteousness, and sanctification, and inherits certain wonderful promises in the future such as a spiritual body, ultimate incorruption, and glory. Each individual in Christ is a new creation. The sum of all individuals who are new creatures and Christ Himself form a theological concept which corporately is titled the new creation. The new creation includes Christ and all who are in Him, that is, the church, even as Adam in the old creation included all who were his descendants.

There is general agreement that Christ is the last Adam and that His ministry in this category began in relation to His incarnation. The exact time of its beginning, however, is a subject of difference of opinion. Three major views have been advanced. Some, like Thomas C. Edward, believe that Christ began His work as the last Adam immediately upon becoming incarnate. Edward writes: “As Adam was created a living soul, so Christ’s person was essentially the source of all supernatural grace. His incarnation was the intrusion of a Divine Force into humanity.”1 There is, however, no Scriptural support for the concept that the work of Christ as the last Adam began with the act of incarnation. Though the incarnation was necessary to it, just as it was to His death and resurrection, it is no more proper to say that He began His work as the last Adam at the incarnation than it is to say He began His work in death and resurrection at the incarnation.

The second view is that He entered His work as last Adam upon His baptism and bestowal of the Holy Spirit upon Him. Here again, there is no Scriptural support, however. It can hardly be demonstrated that Christ was accomplishing His work relating to the forming of the new creation during His public ministry.

The third view, and probably the best, is that Christ entered His new work as the last Adam in His resurrection from the dead. The bulk of the evidence is in support of this idea. The passages which refer to Christ as the last Adam and the second man are found in the resurrection chapter, 1 Corinthians 15. Inasmuch as the central concept of His work as the last Adam is the bestowal of life, it seems proper to relate the new life of the new creation to the victory which Christ won in His resurrection.

The nature of the present work of the last Adam is revealed in 1 Corinthians 15:45 where Christ as the last Adam is said to become “a life-giving spirit.” Just as in the old creation Adam gave his life to his posterity, so Christ gives spiritual life to those in the new creation. The bestowal of life is the essence of the concept of creation. Just as Adam, when formed of the dust of the earth, did not become a man until life was given to him, so members of the creation formed of those who were spiritually dead do not become a part of the new creation until spiritual life is imparted. That life imparted is the eternal life which resides in Christ (John 1:4) and is in fulfillment of the chief purpose of the incarnation that Christ might be able to bestow life (John 6:54) and give life to His sheep (John 10:28; 17:2 ). The bestowal of life then is inseparable from the work of the new creation.

One of the definitive problems relating to the work of Christ and the new creation concerns the work of Christ in bestowing life in its relation to the Holy Spirit as the agent of regeneration. The problem is, of course, related to the inscrutable operation of the Trinity as one and yet three persons. It is true at the same time that the believer in Christ has God, the First Person, as his Father, the life received is that of Christ, the Second Person, and yet the Holy Spirit is the agent of regeneration. An analogy is afforded in the incarnation itself in that when Christ was born the First Person was His Father, the life was that of the eternal Second Person, and yet He was conceived of the Holy Spirit. The operation of regeneration and bestowal of life is, in any case, inscrutable, but the resultant new life is related to all three persons of the Trinity.

In addition to the revelation given in 1 Corinthians 15, another major passage relating to this subject is found in Romans 5:12-21. In this passage, the old creation of which Adam is the head is described as the source of sin, judgment, condemnation, and death, brought about by “the trespass of one” (Rom 5:19). By contrast, the work of Christ as the last Adam issues in justification, abundance of grace, righteousness, and life. The contrast between death and the old creation and life in the new is found in most of the principal passages dealing with the subject. In 1 Corinthians 15:22, it is stated, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ so shall all be made alive.” In Ephesians 2:1-10 the old creation is described as “dead through your trespasses and sin.” The Authorized Version on this passage is perhaps more accurate, “dead in trespasses and sin,” carrying out the idea of our position spiritually as being dead. In addition, however, to our position in the old Adam, we also were “by nature the children of wrath even as the rest” (Eph 2:3) in contrast to what we were in Christ, i.e., made alive and made the objects of the grace of God. The outworking of the new life is manifested in new work as stated in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has afore prepared that we should walk in them.” Attending the bestowal of life from God in the new creation is also the indwelling presence of Christ inseparable from the impartation of life (John 14:19-20).

Though the concept of the last Adam and the new creation is basically theological and related to our position, it has many outworkings and is the theological basis for the remaining work of Christ as it relates to the believer in the present age. It is because the believer is in Christ, and has new life, and the abiding presence of Christ, that the other wonderful promises and realities assured the believer can be appropriated. The very fact that this work of God is defined as a new creation implies that God is the source of its power, execution, and consummation and in this demonstration of grace and power the believer can rest his present as well as his eternal future.

Christ as the Head of the Body of Christ

One of the important figures used in Scripture to describe the relationship between Christ and the church is the analogy of the human body in which Christ is revealed as the head of the body, the church. The use of this figure emphasizes the living character of the church and its living union with Christ as head as well as the pre-eminence and direction of the body by Christ.

The formation and increase of the body. The New Testament emphasizes that the body of Christ is a new entity, a new undertaking of God in the broad program of salvation for the elect. A number of Scripture passages are dedicated to describe the formation of the body and its subsequent increase (Acts 2:47; Eph 2:16; 4:4, 5, 16 ; 5:30-32 ; Col 1:24; 2:19 ; 1 Cor 6:15; 12:12-14 ). The formation of the body according to these passages results in the church being a living organic whole sharing common life and related activity with its various members.

A new work of God, namely, the baptism of the Holy Spirit, is that which forms the new entity. The Holy Spirit is the active agent in the formation of the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:13), and the Father is said to participate in the undertaking by placing Christ as the head of the body (Eph 1:22). Christ does not form the body, but is, nevertheless, the source of its life and the one who directs its activity. In keeping with this doctrine, the Spirit regenerates the individual believer with the same eternal life which abides in Christ (John 10:28; 1 John 5:11-12). The time of the formation of the body of Christ is properly traced to the Day of Pentecost when, for the first time, the baptism of the Holy Spirit took place. According to Acts 1:5, Christ declared on the day of His ascension, “John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized in [by] the Holy Spirit not many days hence.” The expression “in the Holy Spirit” is the instrumental use of the en and is properly translated “by” or “with.” The expression is identical in meaning to that found in 1 Corinthians 12:13. Up to this time there is no indication in Scripture that the Holy Spirit had ever baptized believers. All the references in the Gospels are prophetic of the future. Though Old Testament saints were born again and in individual cases indwelt by the Spirit, there is no Scriptural revelation prior to the Day of Pentecost of binding believers together in a living union comparable to that of the church. There were saints in the Old Testament, that is, holy ones, but not believers baptized into the body of Christ. What the Scriptures teach is that a new entity is now being formed beginning on the Day of Pentecost.

Though a few extreme dispensationalists attempt to place the beginning of the church subsequent to Pentecost, it is made evident from Acts 10 and 11 in the account with Cornelius’ conversion that the baptism of the Spirit which took place when Cornelius believed was identical with that which occurred on the Day of Pentecost. As Peter recited his experience in Acts 11:15-16, he stated: “And as I began to speak the Holy Spirit fell on them, even as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit.” Peter refers to “the beginning,” obviously a reference to Pentecost, and in verse 16 to the prediction of Acts 1:5 which he likewise claims was fulfilled at Pentecost and subsequently. Even nondispensationalists are willing to recognize that something began on the Day of Pentecost, namely, the New Testament church.

Although the work of the formation of the body is primarily attributed to the Holy Spirit, Scriptures seem to indicate that the increase of the body is related to the work of Christ. According to Acts 2:47, in relation to the growth of the New Testament church, it is stated, “And the Lord added to them day by day those that were saved.” As individuals believe in Christ as Savior, they are baptized into His body and therefore added to the church. The vital union of the church is indicated in the expression of Ephesians 5:30, “We are members of his body,” and therefore are cut off from former relationships and should cleave to Christ as a wife cleaves to her husband. This is brought out in Ephesians 5:31-32: “For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great: but I speak in regard of Christ and of the church.”

The figure of the union of the body is further described in Colossians 2:19 where the body is related to the head in these words, “The Head, from whom all the body, being supplied and knit together through the joints and bands, increaseth with the increase of God.” Using the analogy of the human body, the members of the church are declared to be joined together just as the human body is by joints and bands, having a mutual relationship of life and nourishing ministry to each other, being knit together. The union of the church results in the growth of the body.

On the basis of this intimate union with one another and with Christ, the head of the body, believers in Christ are called unto the holiness of Christ in keeping with this intimate relationship. In 1 Corinthians 6:15 the Corinthians are challenged: “Know ye not the your bodies are members of Christ? shall I then take away the members of Christ, and make them members of an harlot, God forbid.”

Christ as head directs the body. The concept of Christ as head has various usages in the New Testament and a sixfold headship can be indicated: (1) Dispensationally, Christ is the head of the corner to Israel at His second coming (Acts 4:11; 1 Pet 2:7). (2) Racially, Christ is the head of every man (1 Cor 11:3). (3) Ecclesiologically, Christ is the head of the church, His bride (Eph 5:23; Rev 19:6-8). (4) Physiologically, Christ is the head of the body, the church (cp. all Scripture in this context). (5) Cosmically, Christ is the head of principalities and powers and has the universal lordship (Col 2:10). (6) Representatively, Christ is the head of the new creation (Rom 5:12-21), though the word head does not appear in the context. Accordingly it should be observed that when Christ is referred to as the head, it contextually should be classified according to its proper relationship.

Common to the concept of a headship, however, is the thought of being Lord or having the power to direct. As the head of the corner, for instance, Christ will lead Israel. As the head of every man, He is in authority over the race. As the head of the church, His bride, He takes the place of lordship as a husband. In relationship to the universe, Christ is head over all other powers. As the head of the race, Christ again takes the place of leadership over humanity in the same way that Adam did.

The Scriptures frequently refer directly to the headship of Christ over His church as His body (Eph 1:22-23; 5:23-24 ; Col 1:18; 1 Cor 11:3). The headship over the body in Ephesians 1:22-23 is revealed to be an important subdivision of His universal lordship. William Graham distinguishes between Christ as the head of the church and Christ as the head over the church.2 As head over the church, Christ is directing the body. As head of the church, Christ is a part of the union and the body of Christ becomes essential to the life of Christ as the head of the body and its principal expression. In Colossians 1:18, Christ is pictured as the Creator, who in this capacity is head over the church. In Ephesians 5:23-24, the analogy of a husband’s direction of a wife is carried over to the direction of the body by Christ the head. Just as a wife should be in subjection to her husband, so the church is described as in subjection to Christ. The direction of the body by Christ is, therefore, not an arbitrary and unreasonable lordship over the church, but rather a loving direction of its members for whom He died. The analogy to the human body, however, becomes dramatically evident in this relationship. Just as the human body is utterly dependent upon the human mind to direct it into coherent action, not only to attain any desirable end but also to minister to itself, so Christ is likewise revealed to direct the members of His body, and the members in turn are utterly dependent upon Him for coherent and intelligent action. An effective member of the body of Christ, therefore, must submit to the direction of Christ as head of the body or the value of His relationship to the body is lowered to that of being a paralyzed member, i.e., one which is alive but not obedient. The emphasis in Scripture seems to be on Christ as the head of the body and, though believers should be obedient to the Spirit and to the Father, there is no tension as the will of one is the will of the other. And if the believer is pleasing to one, he will be pleasing to the other. It is noteworthy that the figure of the head and the body does not describe any ecclesiastical organization, but represents the direct relationship of the individual believer to Christ as His head. While this does not contradict organization in the local church, it would seem clear that the relationship of Christ to His body should take supremacy over any organizational relationship.

The nurture of the body. In keeping with the analogy of the human body in which there is a constant process of nurture, there is a corresponding ministry of Christ to His church embodied in three important passages (Eph 5:29; Phil 4:13; Col 2:19). The love of Christ for His church, corresponding to the love of a husband for his wife, is revealed in Ephesians 5:29; “For no man ever hateth his own flesh; but nourisheth it and cherisheth it, even as Christ also the church.” The Greek word for “nourish” according to Arndt and Gingrich means to “nourish” or “rear” or “bring up” as it is used in its only other New Testament occurrence in Ephesians 6:4.3 It therefore describes the general purpose of God to bring the body to maturity in the development of its individual members and their relationship one to another.

The word “cherish” (thalpei) means literally to “keep warm” and figuratively, “cherish, comfort.”4 Its only other New Testament occurrence is in 1 Thessalonians 2:7 in relation to a mother cherishing her child. The thought here is that Christ not only provides that which will lead to maturity in the way of spiritual nourishment, but also provides the love and compassion and tender care such as a mother provides for her child. The figure is, therefore, rich in its spiritual connotation and reveals the heart of Christ for His own.

An added concept is given in Colossians 2:19 where the ministry of the members to each other is also brought out: “The head, from whom all the body, being supplied and knit together through the joints and bands, increaseth with the increase of God.” As one member of the body of Christ is strengthened, it results in other members also being strengthened and also has the effect of increasing the body by adding new members. In Philippians 4:13, it is indicated that the strength ultimately comes from Christ Himself, for Paul gives his testimony, “I can do all things in him that strengthens me.”

In theology, as well as in Christian doctrine, the nurture and care of the body of Christ has often been a neglected theme. The figure takes the Christian life out of the realm of self-effort, reveals our own insufficiency as individuals, and on the other hand the complete sufficiency we have in Christ and in our union with our fellow members of the body of Christ.

The sanctification of the body. In ordinary human experience, the well-being of the body is necessarily related to its cleanliness. This is also true of the body of Christ. God’s work of cleansing in sanctification is portrayed in Scripture in a threefold time relationship: (1) positional sanctification; (2) progressive or experiential sanctification; (3) ultimate or final sanctification. The emphasis in the doctrine of sanctification in relation to the body is in the present tense, namely, the progressive aspect which is experiential. The work of sanctification is one of the great ministries of God to His own in which the three members of the Trinity are severally involved. The principal passage dealing with the subject is Ephesians 5:25-27 which is supplemented by collateral references (Heb 2:11; 9:12, 14 ; 13:12 ). In Ephesians 5:26, it is indicated that Christ gave Himself sacrifically on the cross with the purpose “that he might sanctify it [the church], having cleansed it by the washing of water with word.” This act of progressive sanctification has in view the ultimate presentation of “the church to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:27). A common view of expositors is that this passage refers to cleansing as revealed in the baptismal ordinance. The relation of this passage to water baptism, however, is entirely based on the use of the word water. The frequent use of water as a figure in the Scriptures, however, would make such a preliminary assumption hazardous. A careful examination of the passage does not support the interpretation that water baptism is here in view. The expression “washing” (loutroi) is commonly used for bathing or partial washing with no thought of a sacrament or ordinance (Acts 9:37; 16:33 ; Rev 1:5). The washing here, however, seems to be a spiritual rather than a physical cleansing and water is used in a nonliteral sense as frequently in Scripture (cp. John 4:10, 11, 14, 15; 7:38 ; Heb 10:22; Rev 7:17; 21:6 ; 22:1, 17 ). In a similar way, the expression, “washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5), should be noted, where the washing is obviously not water but related to the Holy Spirit and His renewing as the passage itself states.

Because of these considerations, it is preferable to consider the phrase “with the word” not as a reference to the baptismal formula but rather to the Word of God itself. This is in keeping with other Scriptures which indicate the sanctifying ministry of the Word of God. The thought of Ephesians 5:26 is, therefore, that Christ will sanctify His church through cleansing by application of the truth of the Word of God. It relates to the present work of sanctification rather than to the initial act of sanctification at the new birth or the ultimate sanctification which will be the believer’s portion in heaven. The present cleansing of the body, however, has not only in view its present health, and prosperity, and usefulness in the hands of Christ, but also the ultimate state when the church, the body of Christ, will be purged of every taint of defilement or anything that would mar its perfect beauty.

The gifts of Christ to His body. The subject of spiritual gifts in the Scripture is a major revelation of God. In relation to spiritual gifts bestowed by Christ on His church, three major passages are found (Eph 4:7-16; 1 Cor 12:27-28; Rom 12:3-8). A threefold outline may be observed in this doctrine as found in 1 Corinthians 12:4-6: (1) gifts differ from one another; (2) the administration of the gifts differs; (3) the actual operation or workings of the gifts differ. This is stated plainly in 1 Corinthians 12:4-6, “Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are diversities of ministrations, and the same Lord. And there are diversities of workings, but the same God, who worketh all things in all.” This passage not only supports this threefold outline but reveals that God the Father and the Holy Spirit join with Christ in this important work.

As in other undertakings of God, there is sometimes a distinction between the ministries of the various persons of the Trinity. In a general way, the ministry of Christ seems to be that of bestowing gifted men on the church, in contrast to the work of the Holy Spirit who bestows the gifts on the men as individuals. This distinction, however, cannot always be maintained. In Ephesians 4:7-16, four types of gifted members bestowed on the church by Christ are indicated. (1) Apostles were given to the church by Christ for its necessary human leadership and as witnesses sent by God. In the strict sense of apostleship, they were usually limited to those who were eye witnesses of Christ’s resurrection, though some like Barnabas may have been an exception. Their ministry seems to have ceased with the first century and the death of the first generation.

(2) Another form of gifted members bestowed upon the church were prophets who were the chosen channel of revelation. In the early church, the New Testament was not yet complete. It was necessary to have a means of communication of divine truth to the people, and prophets were this medium. Sometimes their ministry consisted of direct revelation from God including the element of the prophetic future, though not exclusively so (cp. Acts 11:27; 13:1 ; 15:32 ; 21:10 ), and in other cases they exhorted the people, applying the truth to the particular situation. Like the gift of apostleship, the gift of prophets was limited to the first generation of the church, and once the New Testament was complete no further direct revelation from God was given to any special men chosen for the purpose of being a channel.

(3) One of the abiding gifts, however, was that of evangelism defined as the special gift of proclaiming the gospel effectively (Acts 21:8; Eph 4:11; 2 Tim 4:5).

(4) A fourth group of gifted men consisted of pastors and teachers. It is significant that the “and” is the Greek kai, a different form of expression than that used in itemizing the other gifted people, indicating that pastors and teachers are inseparable. The thought seems to be that those who are good pastors will be teachers, and that good teachers will be pastors, and both aspects are essential to the complete gift, even though there may be emphasis in one area or the other. The word “pastors” (poimenas) carries with it connotations of similarity between the work of a pastor and that of a shepherd. As the shepherd devotes himself to the care of his sheep, especially providing food, protection, and shelter, so the pastor who desires to be pastor of his flock must be a teacher who feeds the flock as well as caring for it in other ways. Emphasis is placed upon the teaching ministry which is confirmed by the words of Christ to Peter, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17).

Gifts of lesser character are indicated elsewhere in the Scripture and men possessing such gifts were bestowed by Christ upon His church. In 1 Corinthians 12:28 five additional gifts are mentioned: (5) miracles, or the gift of performing miracles; (6) the gift of healing, the power to perform healing; (7) helps, the gift of assisting others as illustrated in the work of a deacon; (8) governments, the gift of ruling or administration as illustrated in the work of elders; (9) diversity of tongues, the gift of speaking in tongues. While it is proper to consider the gifts as bestowed by God upon the individual (1 Cor 12:28), it is also true that Christ gives such gifted men to the church for their particular contribution to the welfare as a whole. Additional light is cast upon these matters in Romans 12:3-8 which also has a list of gifts which may be classified under the various gifts mentioned in the previous passages considered.

It is most significant that the sovereign purpose of God in bestowing gifts as well as gifted men is specified in Ephesians 4:12 to be “for the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ.” The ultimate purpose is to “attain unto the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a full-grown man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph 4:13). The result of such a process is that spiritual maturity may be attained and a steady testimony amidst the deceiving work of evil doers as explained in the verses which follow. The possession of spiritual gifts, therefore, instead of being a basis for pride is rather a solemn trust which should be used by the individual to the glory of God for the purposes revealed in His Word.


This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.


1 T. C. Edward, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, 413-44.

2 William Graham, Lectures on Ephesians, 100.

3 Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament.

4 Ibid.