January, 2016

The Apostles’ Creed: Shall Judge the Living and the Dead

As a kid I was given a small coin bank. But this bank was no common piggy bank. It was an automatic coin sorting bank. You could drop coins into the receptacle and it would trigger a motor. That motor would align the coins and roll them down a path where they would be sorted according to denomination. This bank fascinated me. As a kid I marveled at how this machine could judge between a nickel and dime. However it did it; it knew the value of each coin.

A doctrine we don’t often talk about in Reformed or Evangelical circles is that of the Coming Judgment. We generally acknowledge that it will happen. But there is enough mystery about it that we are likely afraid the Weird-o-Meter will go off if we bring it up in conversation. So, we quietly agree it is something good and then quickly relegate it to the theological corner. But we miss out on some tremendous blessings when we minimize or ignore this doctrine.

There will be a Day of Judgment. The Scriptures are abundantly clear on this fact. Herman Witsius’ commentary on the Apostles’ Creed provides us with the right questions to ask in order to understand and profit from this statement in the Creed. Who is the Judge? Who is to be judged? What is the sentence? When will this happen?

Who is the Judge? The clearest and most straight-forward answer is God. “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Eccl 12:14). Paul explains in Romans that there is a day coming when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed (Rom 2:5). But we also see that within the Godhead, Jesus Christ has a special role as Judge. Isaiah speaks of the work of the Messiah as Judge, “For the LORD is our judge; the LORD is our lawgiver; the LORD is our king; he will save us” (Isa 33:22). And Paul notes that the judgment seat at the end of time belongs to Christ (2 Cor 5:10). Jesus, who sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, is the Judge of the end of days. Witsius speculates that this is because Jesus in his divine nature has the authority, majesty, knowledge, and power and in his human nature can do so in visible and audible manner that is seen by all.[1]

With Christ as the Judge, the next question to ask is “Who is to be judged?” The Creed states that the “living” and the “dead” are to be judged. The short answer to the question is that everyone will be judged. Witsius explains that all men are to be judged, “This appears, 1. From the note of universality. ‘We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ’ (2 Cor 5.10, Jude 14, Rom 14:10-12). 2. From the use of collective nouns – ‘all the earth,’ (Gen 18:25) ‘the world’ (Acts 17:31). 3. From the distribution of mankind into particular classes. God shall judge ‘the righteous and the wicked’ (Eccl 3:17), ‘the small and great’ (Rev 20:12), ‘the quick and the dead’ (Acts 10:42, 2 Tim 4:1).”[2] The thoughts, words, and deeds of all men are to be judged.

The sentence to be imposed on the judged is two-fold. It is either absolution or condemnation. It is important to note that there is no decision to be made. God has already elected his people. God “chose us in him before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4). God renders this judgment outside of time. So the Final Judgment by Christ is a revealing (greek, apocalypto) of his judgment that will be made manifest to all. And at that time, all men will know their judgment. Everything will be laid open before Christ. God is omniscient. He knows. And at that time all sinners will know their fate and why. And all the redeemed will know their fate and why. Both Christian and non-Christian will be judged. The non-Christian will be judged on their merits and the result will be death. “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). But the Christian will be judged based on the merits of Christ. And the good works done in Christ will be rewarded by Christ.

The final question is one of time. When will this Final Judgment happen. This is a popular question for many televangelists. Throughout history many have claimed to know the time or date of Christ’s return and the Final Judgment. Every single on has been wrong. Jesus has clearly and finally answered this question, “concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mk 13:32).

The doctrine of the Last Judgment highlights the sovereignty of God. His sovereignty is an anchor of hope to all the redeemed. If God is sovereign, then the believer can be confident in his salvation. Additionally, because all people will stand before the judgment seat of Christ, it should serve to check our raging lusts and encourage piety in our lives.

[1] Herman Witsius, Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed, 2 Vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 274.

[2] Ibid., 285.

The Apostles’ Creed: Sits at the Right Hand of God the Father

The 17th century Dutch theologian Herman Witsius opens his discussion on this article of the Apostles’ Creed by declaring the Christian’s delight in Christ’s glory.

Whoever loves Christ in sincerity, cannot fail, on many account, to take pleasure in meditating on that unbounded glory, to which the Father has been pleased to exalt him. No spectacle can be more excellent, more splendid, or more delightful in the esteem of believers…. They must turn away their eyes and their minds from all other persons and things; since in the contemplation of Christ alone, they will find abundance, whatever is calculated to administer the most ample satisfaction.[1]

It is a delight, Witsius argues, to contemplate and meditate upon this, the third stage of Christ’s exaltation. Christ sitting at the right hand of God the Father points to Christ’s power, honor, royal and priestly functions, and rest.

Christ’s sitting at the right hand is a place of power. Often the power of a king was represented through a scepter and that scepter was usually held in the right hand. The right hand was a symbol of power. Consider Isaiah 41:10, “I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” To sit at the right hand, therefore, was to sit in direct and close communion with power and might. For Christ to sit at the right hand of the God was to be the instrument through which divine power and authority flowed.

Christ’s sitting at the right hand is a place of honor. The right hand is a place of glory and high esteem. Psalm 80:17 tells us, “But let your hand be on the man of your right hand.” Or consider the words of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes 10:2, “A wise man’s heart inclines him to the right [hand], but a fool’s heart to the left.” When Joseph presented his sons to his father for a blessing, he placed Manasseh, the older son, at his father’s right hand (Gen 48:13). And the elect will be placed at the King’s right hand on the day of Judgment (Matt 25:34). For Christ to sit in this place is a declaration of the honor he has received from the Father. Christ is seated at the right hand “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Eph 1:21). It is a seat that is “superior to angels” (Heb 1:4).

Christ’s sitting at the right hand is a symbol of his royal and priestly functions. This article does not exclusively relate to Christ’s royal functions. It does speak of his power and honor as King. But it also relates to the beginning of his work as our intercessor. Geerhardus Vos shows how this is explained prophetically in Psalm 110.

The emphasis there falls on the fact that Melchizedek was king and priest at the same time. In Israel, the two positions of dignity were separated. David, the head of the people, could not provide the gift of atonement for his people. The priest, the one atoning for the people, could not rescue Israel with kingly power. In the awareness of this imperfection, David rises prophetically to the ideal mediatorial office of his Lord, who will unite priesthood and kingship in Himself, and to whom the Lord says, “Sit at my right hand until I will have put your enemies as a footstool for your feet (v. 1), whose scepter of strength will be sent from Zion (v. 2), at whose right hand is the Lord Himself (v. 5), who does justice among the nations (v. 6), who is priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek (v. 4).[2]

Christ’s sitting at the right hand is also a sign of rest. The person who serves stands in the presence of the one he serves. “Happy are your servants, who continually stand before you” (1 Kings 10:8). Angels are only depicted as sitting on one occasion, the resurrection of Jesus (John 20:12). Any other moment they are always depicted as standing, ready to serve. But Christ sat down to demonstrate his greater position than angels (Heb 1:3, 4). Vos points out that the Hebrew word for priest is derived from the verb “to stand.” “Every priest stands daily at his service” (Heb 10:11). Christ also stood to make atonement. But that work has been accomplished. Jesus was able to declare, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). He has fully satisfied our need for atonement. Now, Christ sits. “He sat, as the sign of His efficacious exercise of the priestly office and kingly rule.”[3]

Christ’s sitting at the right hand of God the Father is good news for the Church. It tells us that Jesus reigns. He rules and defends us, while he also restrains and conquers all his and our enemies (WSC 26). Witisius adds, “In spite of the impotent fury of sinners, and of devils, Jesus reigns and shall reign forever.”[4] If Christ sits in authority on the highest of all thrones, then what does His Bride, the Church, have to fear? Believer, be encouraged, nothing can stand against the chosen of God.

[1] Herman Witsius, Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed, 2 Vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 237, 239.

[2] Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics: Christology, ed. Richard B. Gaffin (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 237–8.

[3] Ibid., 237.

[4] Witsius, Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed, 2 Vols., 263.

The Apostles’ Creed: Ascended into Heaven

 

The celebrations associated with Christmas might lead one to consider the incarnation as the most important event in the life and work of Christ. But historically, Easter and the celebration of the resurrection has been more significant in the Church. And yet, the symbol most often associated with Christianity is the cross which points to the crucifixion of Christ. However, one aspect of the life and work of Christ that is often overlooked is the ascension. Instead of trying to figure out a hierarchy between these events, it is more appropriate for us to consider them as links in a chain. Each link depends on the strength of the other links. We would benefit greatly, therefore, by peering into the oft-overlooked topic of Christ’s ascension.

If we acknowledge that the New Testament speaks about the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven with any importance, then we must also acknowledge that the ascension of Jesus Christ is important. The ascension is the culmination of all the Old Testament and New Testament prophecies about the Kingship of the Messiah. The ascension can be viewed as the coronation of Jesus Christ as King.

From a Biblical Theological perspective, we can look at the ascension as the fulfillment of the promise of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. When Adam fell he hid from the immediate presence of God. His sin caused shame which in turn caused him to cover up and hide. He was cast out of the garden and his re-entry to the garden was blocked by an angel with a flaming sword (Gen 3:24). This was in part to prevent Adam from partaking of the Tree of Life. Man now faces a hard life in a fallen world separated from God with only the prospect of certain death. But there was a promise of eternal life with God. There was a promise of “Good News.” A Redeemer would crush the head of the serpent, restore man to a right relationship with God, and offer eternal life in his presence. Christ himself would be the first fruits of this promise. Heaven is the place of God’s holy dwelling. It is where his glory is more prominently revealed than anywhere else. Christ’s ascension into heaven marks the way and the promise for all who are united to him by faith. His entrance into heaven declares to us that Christ’s work was satisfactory for the redemption of creation. The promise of eternal life and blessed communion with God first comes to fruition in Christ’s ascension.

Christ serves as an example for all the redeemed. God’s people have the hope of being in his full and glorious presence. They are seated with Christ in heaven (Eph 2:6). Where Christ is, there his people will be. Have you ever felt that the distance between heaven and earth seemed too great? The good news of the ascension is that our Head, Jesus Christ, is in heaven now as our Advocate. Even now he intercedes on our behalf in heaven. And that seemingly insurmountable distance is closed.

Scripture also tells us that Christ’s ascension is part of his work of redemption because he has entered heaven to prepare a place for us. “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1-4). Geerhardus Vos notes, “They all will come there not only as He is there, but also because He is there”[1] (emphasis original). There is an instrumental significance to the ascension, that is, because Christ is in heaven, we will be in heaven.

The ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven ought to excite the believer. He is the forerunner of what we will be. And that ought to influence our heart’s desire. If we love God, and the promise is that through Christ we will be with God, then our affections should be kindled by the prospect of being in that place where his presence is most prominently revealed. Herman Witsius wrote, “The soul is not so much where it lives, but where it loves.”[2] What he means is that if we love Christ, then in a real sense we are already caught up with him in his ascension. And what has begun in the spirit will be completed in the body. And this should stir us up to good works and holiness until that completion. What a crime it would be if the Head shines in heaven while the body rolls in the dust, in the filth of sin, and the abominable mire of hell.[3] Those whose place is in heaven ought not to live like hell.

The ascension is of great importance for the Christian. It serves as a link in the chain of the great work of Christ. Through the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension Christ began undoing the ravages of sin and redeeming his people for the glory of God. In the ascension we begin to experience a foretaste of the delights of beholding glories of God’s face.

[1] Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics: Christology, ed. Richard B. Gaffin (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 233.

[2] Herman Witsius, Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed, 2 Vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 234.

[3] Ibid., 235.