Jesus – Alive and Reigning as King

In the continuation of my look at the Apostles’ Creed, today we turn to the victorious announcement of Jesus’ resurrection and his ongoing reign over all the earth.

The third day he rose again

Do you know the three most thrilling words in the whole Bible? “He is not here; he has risen!(Luke 24:6). Victory! Three days after Jesus, God himself, was crucified, he rose from the dead.  Paul exclaims excitedly, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:20).  From the depths of the dead, Jesus is alive! The great hope of the Scriptures, of the Apostles’ Creed, and of our lives is that Jesus rose from the dead and will now live forever and ever.

Ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father

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” (Philippians 2:9-10).  From the depths of the grave, Jesus rose, returning to the glory that was his before the world began. He sits at the right hand of God the Father, ruling over the world.

He shall come again

In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you may also be where I am” (John 14:2-3). Jesus is coming again! The first time, he came as a humble babe in Bethlehem. This next time it will be as the triumphant King, riding on the clouds and announced by the trumpets. And the great promise is that when he comes, he will take us to be with him. The Creed does anticipate judgment for those who reject Jesus as King and therefore provides us the impetus and challenge to share the grace and hope of Christ. But it also assures us that we will get to share in the Father’s blessings, dwelling in his very presence.

Interact: Is Jesus’ return a point of hope or a point of fear in your life? Why?

Jesus – Birth and Death

Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary

Justo Gonzalez, a noted church historian, highlights two important facets of this phrase of the Creed in his book, The Apostles’ Creed for Today. First, it was a special birth. Consider the miraculous births that the Scriptures record from the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah, to the birth of Samuel to Hannah, to the birth of John to Zechariah and Elizabeth. All of these miracle births anticipate the miracle birth of Jesus. Just as God had a special plan laid out for each of those miracle babies, so also God had a special plan for the baby born to Mary.

Second, notes Gonzalez, Jesus was born. It was a special birth…but it was also a real birth. Jesus was a real baby born to a real mother in a real place and at a real time in history. As we saw previously, there were some, including Marcion, who taught that Jesus had not really been born. The emphasis on his birth in the Creed serves to emphasize his humanity, for it was that little baby who would grow to be the man who would save us from our sins. Yes, Jesus was fully God. And yes, he was also fully man (Gonzalez, 2007).

Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified dead and buried

Just as the Apostles’ Creed is very explicit to make sure we do not miss the humanity of Jesus as demonstrated by his birth, so also the Creed ensures that we do not miss the death of Jesus. At the hands of Pilate, he was beaten, spat upon, humiliated and then, ultimately, crucified. This is not a good religious myth about a deity rising from death, but the factual, historical account of the death of God. Truly, this is a strange thing for a religion to claim the death of its own deity. As Paul writes of Jesus, “He humbled himself and become obedient to death – even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).

Descended into hell

As if, again to make sure that the point of his death does not escape us, the Creed goes on to say that Jesus descended into hell. Now, much can be made of what, exactly, this means. Did Jesus really go into hell? Though an interesting question, it is not really the primary concern of this phrase.  Instead, this phrase intends to reaffirm that Jesus was really dead. Ok, so Jesus really was crucified on a cross. He really died. They really stabbed him in the side to make sure he was dead. Then, they really pulled down his dead body and buried him. Get it? That is the point. Jesus was dead. Really, really dead!

Jesus – the Christ, God’s Son, Our Lord

The Apostles’ Creed emphasizes the humanity of Jesus. Most of the Creed’s statement about Jesus center on his birth and death – that he was an actual man who actually lived and actually died. But it roots his humanity is his divinity. Jesus is both fully man and fully God. The first line of the stanza about Jesus in the Creed reads, “And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.” Let’s explore each briefly as they all speak to his divinity.

Christ

You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). The first thing the Creed tells us about Jesus is that he is the Christ. No, Christ is not Jesus’ last name. It is a title meaning “chosen one” or “anointed one.” Jesus is the anointed one – the one chosen before the creation of the world to bring redemption and restoration to a lost world.

His Only Son

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:15). Clearly the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16, offers insight into the unique relationship between God the Father and God the Son. Listen to J.I. Packer’s comment’s on this phrase of the Creed: “When you hear a young man introduced as ‘my only son,’ you know he is the apple of his father’s eye. The words reveal affection.” (Packer, 2008, p. 67.) Jesus is the Father’s beloved.

Our Lord

Throughout the Old Testament, the name YHWH, meaning Lord, was such a sacred designation for God that the Israelites would not even say the word. It was a holy name set apart for a holy God. Instead, they came up with alternate words, such as Jehovah, to speak of God. Because we are so familiar with the designation “Lord” being applied to Jesus, we miss what a radical claim it is. There is only one Lord, the Holy One of Israel. Yet, consider the claims of Romans 10:9: “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Jesus is the Lord: the ruler of all.

Interact: Which of these is hardest for you to believe – that he is the Christ, that he is the Son of God or that he is the Lord? Why

Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity

There are 109 words in the Apostles’ Creed, 69 fall in the second stanza.  Over 63% of the Apostles’ Creed is found in the second stanza which focuses exclusively on the second member of the Trinity, Jesus.  Why? Let me suggest two reasons. First, it is the person of Christ that makes Christianity so unique. One week after 9/11, I heard the Imam (basically the head Islamic pastor) of Orlando say that Christianity and Islam share about 95% of beliefs in common and that this was a time to hold to those commonalities and work together. The problem with the Imam’s statement is that the 5% about which we disagree – the identity of Jesus – is everything!  Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). This is the most important question that any of us will ever have to answer and all that we believe hinges on the identity of Jesus. John, in his gospel, actually spells that out as the precise reason he wrote. “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).

Second, the Creed focuses so extensively on the person of Jesus, precisely because that is the point of doctrine that was most under attack. Interestingly, the comments about Jesus in the Creed emphasize not his divinity, but his humanity. It discusses his birth, his life, his death and his resurrection because the earliest heresies the church had to combat were not attacks on the deity of Jesus – people believed he was God – but his humanity.  They didn’t believe that the God of the universe would actually become a man.  For example, Marcion (yes, the same one who we previously saw as teaching dualism) also taught what is called “docetism,” from the Greek word that means “to appear.”  That is, basically, Jesus was just a ghost. He only appeared to have a body. He denied that Jesus was born of a woman, instead suggesting that Jesus just suddenly appeared in Capernaum one day. Have you ever seen those pictures of Jesus where he hovers just off the ground? Pretty much, that is what Marcion taught as reality. He denied both the incarnation and, thus, the resurrection. If Jesus was never a real man, how could he die and then rise again? Apart from the birth, death and victorious resurrection of Jesus, we have no hope. Paul goes so far as to say that if there is no resurrection, “we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Corinthians 15:19). Thus, the Apostles’ Creed stands against docetism, against Marcion, and against attacks on the humanity of Christ. The next couple of blog posts will briefly explore the various phrases of the Creed concerning Jesus.

Interact: Who do you say Jesus is?

The Father Almighty

The first declaration of the Creed states, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” There are two main ideas here, summed up in the words “almighty” and “maker.” That God is almighty means that he is the ruler of all. God is sovereign. He can and will do all he intends to do.  He can and will accomplish all that he intends to accomplish. When the Creed declares belief in “God the Father Almighty,” it is establishing God as the true, noble and all-powerful Father, with all earthly fathers and rulers subject to him.

In addition to setting God up as the mighty ruler of all, it also explicitly names him as “maker of heaven and earth.” While creation was truly a Trinitarian act (Colossians 1:16 tells us of Jesus’ active role in creation and Genesis 1:2 places the Holy Spirit at creation), the Apostles’ Creed makes a point to highlight the Father’s role in creation.  And the reason here is very important. The Creed is not trying to address all points of doctrine, but it is attempting to clarify points of doctrine that were under attack.

Marcion, who, for these views, was excommunicated, taught that the God, the creator God, is inferior, harsh and evil. He rejected the Old Testament because it presented an evil, wicked God. The New Testament God (Marcion only included in his Bible the books that he liked) was, by contrast, kind, full of love and forgiving. Whereas the Old Testament God was pure justice, the New Testament God is full of grace. He pitted this evil, wicked God against the loving, gracious God. This view, called dualism, is what the Apostles’ Creed is combating by emphasizing that the Father is the maker of heaven and earth. It is the same God who created the earth and who laid out the plan for its redemption in Christ. There are not two gods, only the One.

It may sound like a crazy position to hold to…two separate gods, one in the Old Testament and another in the New Testament, but practically speaking, many people today hold to some form of dualism. We, like Marcion, are much more comfortable with a loving, gracious God than we are with the one who ordered Israel to conquer a piece of land and leave nothing – not a man, woman, child or animal – alive. How could God do something like that? Certainly, we don’t serve the same God today that would issue such harsh orders, do we? I was leading a discussion with some friends about this idea and one of them, a student at the University of Delaware, said that this past fall, he had a professor who said that the Bible teaches two gods – one in the Old Testament and a different god in the New Testament. It was bad theology when Marcion was teaching it and it is bad, though far too prevalent, theology today.

Yes, we serve the same God who in the Old Testament laid out a code of punishment that included the idea of an “eye for an eye.” The danger is when we stop there. The requirements for justice and punishment have not changed since the Old Testament because God has not changed, but, in his love, he sent his Son, Jesus, to take on and bear the punishment for our sins.  As Isaiah 53:6 hopefully proclaims, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Christ has taken our iniquities. In Christ, the wrath and justice of God that everyone dislikes, meets the hope and grace and love of that same God.  There was not a creator-God and then a better, more loving God. The same God who is the maker of heaven and earth is the same one who gave up his Son that we might have life!

Interact: Is God the Father the mighty ruler of your life?

God in 3 persons – The Trinity

Question 5 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, one of the foundational documents of the Reformed faith, asks, “Are there more Gods than one?”  The response: “There is but One only, the living and true God.” And yet, the answer to the very next question of the WSC states: “There are three persons in the one God; the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  These three are one God.” (Italics are mine.)  One God, but three persons:  Have you ever considered how crazy this sounds?  This is certainly a mystery.

Consider the paradox of Genesis 1:26 and Deuteronomy 6:4.  In Genesis we read, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…” (1:26). Three times in that verse God uses the plural when speaking about himself!  Flip over to Deuteronomy 6:4, a passage often referred to as the Shema, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” You have plural on the one hand and then an explicit statement that there is only one God on the other. How exactly does that work?

Though it is a mystery, it is also the clear teaching of Scripture. Matthew 28:19 teaches us to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” All three are given equal billing. The catechism says that they are “the same in substance and equal in power in glory.” God is three distinct persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – yet they are the same God.

We call this concept the Trinity, and this is what the Apostles’ Creed is referring to in its three-part division addressing the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Yet, this idea of Trinity took time to be understood by the early church. The church had to wrestle through complex issues such as the nature of the relationship between the Father and Jesus. Did the Father adopt the man Jesus, thus elevating him to the status of God? Is it more of a case that there is only one God, but that in different points in history, he goes by three different names?

The answer to both of the above questions is no, but it does highlight the challenge of understanding how Father, Son and Holy Spirit relate to one another.  Near the end of the second century, Tertullian coined the phrase, Trinity, to highlight both the “3-ness” and the “1-ness” of God. We believe in one God. Trinity is our way of understanding how three persons can be that one God. In theological language, we say that God is one essence, but three persons. While the whole concept still remains mostly a mystery, we can, with the old hymn writer, declare, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”

Interact: Have you ever wrestled through the doctrine of the Trinity?

“I believe”

The Creed is divided into three main sections. The first and the third begin with the phrase, “I believe in…” The Creed is a personal profession of faith. While we no longer use it as a qualification for baptism, it still stands as an affirmation of personal faith. This is not the faith of your father or mother or spouse or child.  It is yours.  It is personal.

The Creed is also a corporate affirmation of faith. The Apostles’ Creed is most frequently read in a worship setting, with all God’s people saying it together, in unison.  It is God’s people speaking with one voice, declaring and affirming faith in Christ. Thus, the Apostles’ Creed becomes both a personal affirmation of faith as well as a corporate statement that we stand, all we Christians in all times, depending on Christ alone for the forgiveness of sins, resurrection of the body and life everlasting.

Interact: Have you ever personally confessed that you believe in God? Today could be the day.