This study of biblical doctrines is the second part of a project designed for training Christians to be able to minister in their churches and communities. The project is called “The Exodus Project” because it is based on the teaching of the Bible first found in Exodus 19 and then restated in 1 Peter 2 that the redeemed of the LORD are to be a kingdom of priests. Accordingly, Deuteronomy 33:10 teaches that the ministry of the priests included:
Teaching the Word of God,
Making intercessory prayer (“burn incense”), and
Enabling people to find access to God through the sacrifice.
Part One, which will be posted on this web site in the spring, is a series of lessons designed to help people be able to teach the Bible. It will include the full introduction to this project and how it can be used in the churches.
Part Three, which will appear later in the spring, will focus on intercessory prayer and the related spiritual services that derive from it.
Part Two, presented here, is a survey of biblical doctrine. Israel’s priests were to make the sacrifices so that others could find access to the living God. This required that they understand what the sacrifices were all about, and how everything worked in God’s program to bring people into communion with Himself. In other words, those intrusted with this service had to know God, understand His attributes and works, be able to explain forgiveness and salvation, instruct others in the rituals of the congregation, and be able to articulate the covenant promises and the hope of glory. Being a worship leader, then, goes way beyond singing a song in front of the congregation--it requires that people be articulate in the doctrines of the faith. Sadly, what is missing in the church today is the articulate Christian, the one who knows the faith and can explain it clearly. And, even more sadly, that quality is disappearing in the clergy as well.
It is, of course, impossible to study all the doctrines included in the Bible, or even a creed like the Nicene Creed in a short period of time. Each doctrine deserves the full attention of a separate course of studies; in that way the doctrine could be fully defined and all the supporting evidence from Scripture and the subsequent writings on the doctrine could be taken into account. Nevertheless, in a survey such as this we will be able to gain a full picture of the beliefs of the historic Christian faith in one sweep. The survey should then inspire individual Christians to read further on the doctrines, or on a particular doctrine.
The doctrines of the church have come under attack again in this generation. Whereas in the past they have simply been denied, now they are being reinterpreted to mean something very different. This survey is not designed to be a defense of the faith, for that would have to include all the false teachings that have arisen over the centuries. But in surveying the historic faith one will be better equipped to discern these subtle challenges that if embraced will change the church completely.
There are a number of ways that this material could be surveyed. I have chosen to focus more on certain passages of the Bible that are basic texts for the doctrines. After the first part on the meaning of faith, each section will give a brief statement of the doctrine and its meaning, and then use a Bible study to elucidate it. In other words, this will be a series of Bible studies on doctrinal themes. But the point of each section will be that the believer who is going to function as a part of this kingdom of priests--which should be every believer--should understand the doctrine involved.
In passing we shall consider what the Nicene Creed left out, or why it said things the way that it did. This will lead to additional studies in other creeds for those who are interested.
The word “creed” comes from the Latin verb credo, the first word of the creed, which is translated into English as “I believe.” Essentially, then, a creed is a collection of doctrines or beliefs that a religious order or denomination holds as distinctive.
From the very beginning the redeemed of the LORD found it necessary and helpful to clarify their beliefs in the world. After all, when Abraham made sacrifices in the land of Canaan, they would have appeared very much like the sacrifices of the Canaanites, or Babylonians, or other religious groups. So he had to make sure every one knew which God he was worshiping. So in Genesis 12:1-9, we have the report of the beginning of his creedal worship. He made an altar to Yahweh. The first duty was to name the God being worshiped. And then the text says that “he proclaimed the name of Yahweh” at the altar. He publicly declared the nature, the person and the works of this God Yahweh. The clue to what he said is found in Exodus 34 where the exact same expression is used of Yahweh’s activity of proclaiming his name to Moses--a long list of attributes. This list became part of the ritual faith of Israel because it is repeated so frequently in the Bible. As time went on the worshipers would add to the name and to the attributes great works that God had done, such as “Creator of heaven and earth,” or “the one who delivered me from all my enemies.”
The nation of Israel was then instructed by the LORD at various times concerning their use of statements of belief to be used in conjunction with worship. Deuteronomy 26 is perhaps the clearest example of this; in this chapter the Israelites were told what to say when they offered the first fruits to the LORD. Their words expressed their own personal faith and their part in the heritage of the faith.
Many other creedal statements were used at the Temple over the centuries, but perhaps the most important was the famous “Shema” (“Hear”) of Deuteronomy 6:6. It says, “Hear, O Israel. Yahweh is our God, Yahweh alone.” There are other possible translations, but this one captures the idea well. It was a statement of faith in the sovereignty of Yahweh--He alone is the true and living God. The rest of the passage reports how important such a statement of faith was to the people.
In time expressions from the Law and the Prophets were used in the worship services of the Temple and later the Synagogue. Later prayer books recorded the most frequently used of these. But in the biblical period, the Book of Psalms provided most of the creedal statements and benedictions because it was the prayer book of the Temple.
More importantly for our study is a brief survey of fragments of creeds and confessions of faith found in the New Testament, suggesting that the early Christians found it necessary to summarize their distinctive beliefs. The basic pattern of these early statements is concerned with two things: (1) the naming of Jesus, who lived and died and rose again in history, and (2) the ascription of a title or titles to him, marking his divinity. Here are some of the fragments that the early church used:
“Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mk. 8:29; 14:61; 15:2)
“Jesus is the Son of God” (John 1:34; 1 John 4:15; Acts 9:20; Heb. 4:14)
“Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3; Rom. 10:9; Phil. 2:11)
These confessions in time were enlarged to include the resurrection, as well as the divine nature of Jesus, the Christ, who was with the Father in the beginning and became the mediator between God and people. The most extensive one is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3b-7, the summary of the Gospel, the essence of the Christian faith:
“That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve, then to more than five hundred brethren at one time … then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles” etc.
Other condensed versions of creeds may be found in Romans 1:3-5a, 8:34, and 1 Timothy 3:16. In fact, some of the creeds were preserved in the early hymns of the Church, such as in John 1:1-18, Colossians 1:15-20, and Philippians 2:6-11. 1 Timothy 3:16 will serve as a good example:
“And by a common confession, great is the mystery of godliness;
God was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated in the Spirit,
was seen of angels, proclaimed in the world, taken up to glory.”
These confessions of faith by the early Church served several purposes: (1) they became the center of the teaching of the Church, the essential doctrine; (2) they formed the basis of the Gospel, the proclamation to be made to the world; (3) they provided new converts with the proper things to say at the time of baptism; and (4) they provided worshipers with a nucleus of expressions for their liturgy.
But the important point that comes out of a study of the Old and New Testament about creeds is that they were formed out of necessity. The new community of worshipers of Christ found it necessary to formulate what they believed in common when they were confronted by old religions, false teachings, and established heresies. The early Church was confronted and attacked on every point, but held onto the belief in the person ad work of Jesus the Christ by these fixed formulas.
The creed that is used in services with holy communion today is the Nicene Creed. There are many creeds that could be studied to gain a survey of Christian doctrine, but this one is both fairly complete and still concise. The creed was composed at a Church council at Nicaea in 325 A.D. Nicaea was located just south of Constantinople (today, Istanbul), and a little inland, in what today is Turkey.
It is helpful to understand why this council ever came about in order to appreciate the doctrines it includes. At the risk of oversimplifying it, we can say that a man named Arius, an elder under the Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, began teaching that Jesus was a being who had been created by God before time and then was himself the agent of creation. His teaching made Jesus less than God, and more than man, somewhere between the two, but fully neither. This, in sum, came to be known as Arianism. The teaching spread throughout the world quickly, sparking a lot of controversy. And so the emperor Constantine called a council of some 300 bishops to assemble in Nicaea and settle the matter. This council was significant in that it was the beginning of the functioning of the catholic (=universal) Church. It had never been so visible as an organized entity before. The bishops were considered to be the Church, and since there was a worldwide gathering of the bishops, this represented the assembled Church.
At the council the creed of Arius was promptly and soundly rejected. Bishop Eusebius offered a creed that he had been using, but it was too general--the Arians were willing to adopt it. Then Athanasius, a deacon from Alexandria and a champion of the orthodox view, presented his creed which stressed the oneness of Christ with the Father. The new creed was adopted, and a condemnation was made on anyone not accepting it (now the Church was using power that formerly they had seen in the Roman government used against them). Constantine himself chaired the meeting, interrupting whenever he wished, and directing the choices. But it is probable that he knew very little doctrine, and certainly did not conform very well. Later in his life he seems to have come more to understand and accept the truth.
It is the central teaching of the Bible that the Church is a community of believers, individuals who have come to faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul asserts, “For by grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, so than no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8, 9). This is clearly based on the teaching of Jesus, who in the night explained to Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). It is simply not possible to please God without faith.
And this principle of faith has been at the heart of the ancient Israelite community as well, so that by the time the early Church began to formulate the doctrines they could see the unity and the continuity of the faith revealed in the Holy Scriptures. The cardinal passage in the Old Testament is Genesis 15:6 (I say “cardinal” because Paul quotes it twice to establish justification by faith). Genesis 15 says, “Now he [Abram] believed in Yahweh, and He [Yahweh] reckoned it to him for righteousness.” The Hebrew word “believed” is related to our familiar Hebrew word, “Amen.” The verb means “to be reliable, dependable, firm.” In the verbal conjugation that means “believe,” the basic idea is to consider something dependable and therefore count on it, or, act on it. When Abram believed in Yahweh’s word, he left Ur of the Chaldees to become a great nation in the land of Canaan. If he had never left, he would not have been counted a believer, no matter how much he considered to be true in the call from God. And this is the point Hebrews 11 makes of all the greats of the faith: by faith they did what they did. Or, as James puts it, their faith was evidenced by their works.
The principle of faith should not be hard for us to grasp, for almost everything we do requires some faith. When we get up in the morning, we turn of the light switch, believing that it will work. We turn on the water, believing that water will come out of the lines. We start our cars, believing that by the switch of the key it will all work. Our faith in these things is based on two things: the reliability of the things we trust, and our experience that has proven them reliable over and over again. If, however, we have a car that is ready for the junk heap, our faith in it will not be very high. If it has failed us time and time again, we will not have much confidence when we turn the key. The same principle works with people. If you are looking for a person to repair something in the house, you have to hire someone that you trust. If that person says that he has never actually done this kind of work, but has always been fascinated by it, your confidence will drop dramatically. Now in the realm of religion we see the principle of faith is similar, just on a higher level, for the stakes are higher. Our faith will only be as strong as the object of our faith; and we will only feel confident if we have proven him again and again.
Abram believed in Yahweh, and Yahweh credited him with righteousness. That Abram was credited with righteousness for his faith shows that his faith was saving faith. It was a faith that responded to the revelation of the word of God in obedience. And throughout the Bible true faith is similarly described as obedience to divine revelation.
Now, we must understand what we mean by the word believe. There is a major difference between the way we use the word “believe” in general discussions and the way we use it in theological discussions (where “trust” might serve us better). If I accept the trustworthiness of the biblical and historical accounts, I might say that I believe that Jesus lived, taught, and did many wonderful things. But this takes no commitment on my part, and so is not what the Church means by faith that is credited with righteousness. Knowledge may compel te assent of the intellect, but it does not compel the act of the will to trust. So when I say “I believe” when saying the creed, that is not meant to say, “I have sufficient data to support these ideas as valid and viable philosophical tenets.” No, it says much more; it says that these are the truths from God that I have believed in, that I have committed my life to, that I have made the center of my life and the basis of my hope.
We have to think a little more about this kind of faith so we are clear. We cannot dissociate knowledge from faith, for we gave to know the word of God and the claims of Christ found in that revelation in order to believe. We do not scorn knowledge, for that would make faith a subjective experience without solid content; the Church is built on the truth of divine revelation (the word of God), reason (the use of the intellect in studying and knowing the truth), and tradition (the ideas and writings of the greats of the faith who have gone before). But when we use the words “I believe,” we are using the language of faith and not certainty (in the sense of verifiable data). We can have assurance and certainty based on the reliability of the word of God, the witness of the Holy Spirit, the shared experience of the Church in its pilgrim journey, and on supporting evidence and experience. But we do not have the certainty of seeing fully--that will come in the presence of God in glory.
The Reformers had to deal with this question of faith because it was such a critical issue in their day. Justification is indeed by faith and not by works--but what does that faith involve, what does it include? They went to great lengths to show that saving faith including the clear understanding of the doctrines to be believed, the assent to the truthfulness of those doctrines, and then the commitment to them. Thus, saving faith was not a general belief, a hoping against hope; and it was not merely the assent to the truthfulness of the things being taught, for even the fallen angels and Satan believe this way, and tremble (James 2:19). Saving faith is present when the message has been properly apprehended, assented to, and appropriated as the basis of one’s relationship with God. Saving faith then is characterized by a life that is committed to living out the truth of the faith.
So what is the content of the faith? Well, that will be the focus of the survey of these meditations on the creed, for the doctrines that the creed contains express the essence of the Christian faith. This kind of creed is the full explanation of the Christian Gospel. Scripture itself says that we must believe the Gospel to find eternal salvation; and the description of the Gospel is that Christ died according to the Scriptures, was buried, and rose again according to the Scriptures. But the key in this statement is “according to the Scriptures.” It is not sufficient to believe that Jesus died, was buried, and rose again. We have to believe these facts as explained by Scripture. This will require us to determine who Christ is (why did his death redeem), how he is related to the Father and the Spirit, what kind of death it was, why the death was necessary (sin), why he was buried, what the resurrection revealed, as well as what all this does for us when we accept it by faith. In other words, the simple Gospel formula assumes a good number of biblical doctrines--and these were included in the creed because the Gospel cannot be properly understood without them.
But knowing only the creed is inadequate. The creed is meant to be a summation of what Scripture says on the various doctrines. To summary revelation we use a creed; to understand the creed we have to know revelation, the word of God. So in this series of studies we will not simply define doctrines, but we shall look at various key passages that give us a full picture of what these brief expressions say. But we will have to be brief, for there is so much available. We could, after all, use up all our time, and more, on just one of these expressions in the creed. The plan, however, will be to define the doctrine briefly and then look at a passage that with teaches it or clarifies what it means.
The Nicene Creed begins:
“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”
It was natural for the creed to begin with the doctrine of God the Father, for the creed is trinitarian in its arrangement and content--Father, then Son, and then Holy Ghost. And although there are only a few brief ideas stated here about God the Father, those ideas cover a wide range of theological ideas. It is simply impossible for us to do justice to them all in one short meditation on the doctrine; but at least we can affirm the major points. The rest of this series of studies will keep coming back to the nature of God the Father in relation to all the other doctrines.
The first point that we must make about the creed in general is that it affirms the biblical teaching that there is only one God. The mystery of the trinity is that this one God exists in three persons (not three people, or three separate Gods). There is a unity to the Godhead, one essence, but three persons. And this makes the study of the doctrine of God the Father a little complicated, because all three persons of the Godhead are actively involved in every work of God. We normally say that the Father decrees the work, the Son carries it out, and the Spirit enables the work to be done--whether it is creation, salvation, judgment, or any other of the works of God. Moreover, when we survey the attributes of God, all the attributes likewise apply to all three persons of the Godhead. Therefore, faith, prayer, praise, and all other forms of worship and service must include the entire Godhead.
The Bible is filled with this revelation about the triune God. True, in the Old Testament it is only hinted at, but nonetheless, when the full revelation of the New Testament is brought to the discussion, it is easy to see that the foundation of the trinitarian faith was laid down from the beginning. The creed of Deuteronomy 6:4 may be interpreted with this fact in mind: “Yahweh is our God; Yahweh is one”; or, “Yahweh is our God, Yahweh alone.” The Scripture affirms through the teachings of the prophets and the apostles that there is one God; and yet the Scripture reveals that God exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14). Knowing this we are more keen to note how in the Old Testament there are intimations of the tri-unity of the Godhead (see Isa. 6:8; 9:6; 48:15, 16; Prov. 30:1-4; Mal. 3:1-5, et al). Moreover, as we shall see later in the doctrine of Christ, Jesus claimed that he and the Father were one and the same (John 10:30) and that he was the I Am of the Old Testament (John 8:58). We cannot fully understand the trinity, not with our finite minds, but we must believe it if we accept the revelation of the Bible for the faith. And we cannot separate the three persons of the Godhead as if they were in some way independent beings. There is one God; but this one God revealed in the Bible is very different than the one God Islam and Judaism profess. This one God is fully revealed in the Son by the Spirit.
Most theological studies will begin with a list of the attributes or perfections of God, and this is a helpful way to organize the vast amount of material. After all, the whole Bible would have to be taken into consideration if there was not a way to synthesize the material. And after all, this is about the best we can do--describe a little of what God is like based on his revelation in his words and works. One of the more helpful works on this would be A. Pink’s, The Attributes of God; but J. Packer’s Knowing God is very helpful as well.
The attributes or descriptions are divided into two categories: the non-communicated attributes and the communicated ones. In other words, there are attributes that belong to God that he did not share with humans through creation, and there are those he did. We conclude from the Bible that God is sovereign over all things, eternal and infinite, all powerful, all knowing, and present everywhere at once. Only God is like this. But when we try to understand and explain what these mean, we run into limitations. If we say God is infinite--what does that mean? We can only say God is not finite, not limited by time, space, or any other limitation. But that does not get us a full understanding. Or, we can say God is all powerful, that all the power in the universe, in any universe, belongs to him. Trying to imagine or understand that is very difficult. We can look at the acts of God revealed in Scripture and begin to appreciate it. But we are like Moses on Mount Sinai, seeing only the fringe of the hem of the garment as he passes by.
We have an easier time with the communicable attributes, for these we possess in a measure. Some of these are love, mercy, wisdom, righteousness, goodness, compassion and the like. We know though that we have only a finite amount of compassion, or love, compared to the amount that exists with God. So as we study the Bible we can see these key words used and described as they relate to the God who is the sovereign over all things.
The creed begins its description of this one God with the designation of the first person of the Godhead as the “Father.” The metaphorical language of “father” is the designation God has chosen for revelation, whether we like it or not. But we must be clear about this: it is a figure of speech; it does not mean that God is a male or a man, or that men are more important to God than women; nor does it mean that there was procreation in the Godhead that produced the Son. The term “Father” for God is a powerful description, lofty and elegant. It should not be trivialized to mean “daddy,” no matter how popular that idea may be.
The title “Father” was used in other countries of the ancient Near East as well to describe the high God of the pantheon, the sovereign. In Canaan, for example, the lesser gods of the heavenly court are called the “sons of God.” In the Old Testament, since there is but one God, the “sons of God” are the angels (see Job 1,2). And in contrast to the Canaanite myths, there is no physical intercourse with God. The gods of the pagans were far too human, base and low. The one true and living God creates by decree, not by copulation. So in the Bible we have this description of God as “Father,” some in the Old Testament, and more in the New Testament. But what is the expression designed to communicate about God?
The first meaning of the expression “Father” is creator. When we call God Father, we are saying that he is the sovereign creator of all things. He produces everything, but he also provides for it, and he protects it. Creation, provision, providence. All these ideas are there with the image of “Father.” No other description could capture them all at once. And since God creates and sustains everything by his decree, he is truly “Almighty.” We shall return to this in a moment.
The second meaning of the expression “Father” has to do with Covenant. When we call God our Father, it means that we enjoy a covenant relationship with him. In the world of the Bible “father-son” language is the language of covenant. You might read in a genealogy that a city is the son of an ancestor. It means there was some kind of treaty there. In Israel, king Ahaz was known as the son of Pul (=Tiglathpileser, the king of Assyria); it means he was a political dependent, a vassal. And so in the covenant with Israel God calls the people his son. He warned Pharaoh to let his son go or he would kill Pharaoh’s son (Exod. 4:23). And in the covenant that God made with David (2 Sam. 7:14), the king would be the son and God would be the father in the new relationship. This, when a king came to the throne he would declare his right to rule with the words from the covenant found in Psalm 2:7, “The LORD said to me, You are my son; today I have begotten you.” This was fine until Isaiah turned the language on its head and predicted that the Davidic king would be known as the “father of eternity”--the one who produces and provides for everything in eternity (Isa. 9:6). Of course, that would be fulfilled by Christ who declared that he and the father were one and the same. But it was the resurrection from the dead that authenticated that claim and declared that Jesus was the Son of God (Rom. 1:4).
In the New Covenant that Jesus inaugurated we who have put our faith in Christ Jesus, the son of God, have the right to be called the sons or children of God, and the privilege to call God “our Father,” especially in our prayers. God is not only our sovereign creator, but our redeemer as well, bringing us into covenant with him. To call God Father in our New Covenant praying is to seek the sanctity of his name and the fulfillment of his sovereign will on earth as in heaven, as well as to seek the daily provisions from the Lord of the covenant.
And third, when we call God Father we are also attesting that God is a person, one who we can know and have fellowship with, because the language is that of human relationship and community. This is no impersonal God, no abstract force in the universe. God is personal, and the description indicates that the relationship he has with his people is intimate and relational. This is because the language first applies to the relationship within the Godhead: as the Father God decrees the sovereign will and oversees its outworking; as the Son God carries out the will of the Father; and as the Spirit God empowers the work to be done. The Son submits to do the will of the Father, but they are equally God. We shall return to this in the doctrine of Christ.
The creed focuses on the doctrine of creation at the beginning, and rightly so. If the biblical teaching on creation is removed or watered down, the faith will not be the same. The doctrine clearly reveals that God is the sovereign over all his creation; remove the doctrine and he is not sovereign, we are not accountable to him, and in fact, there is no basis for ethics and morality. The Bible teaches that God is the primary cause of all things. Out of his will, and by his decree, he brought everything into existence. One may quibble over the means used in all the points, but the fundamental point, the non-negotiable teaching of the Bible is that he is the Maker of everything. And he did this by decree, by his powerful word (Gen. 1; Ps. 33; Isa. 44, 45; John 1; Romans 1; Colossians 1). There is no room for natural development apart from God’s superintendence in the Christian view of origins. At the risk of simplifying this too much, several observations are in order:
1) The Bible affirms that God existed before anything else; and that He is the creator of everything that exists.
2) The Bible affirms that God created everything that exists by decree; he called everything into existence. This does not say anything about intermediate means; it does say that God is the source of everything.
3) The Bible affirms that God created everything after its kind (Gen. 1). This rules out the idea that from one form evolved all the species.
So regardless of the debates of the age of the earth, fossils, natural selection or beneficial mutations, there are some straightforward declarations in the Bible that clearly teach that God is the creator of everything, and that as a result he is the one who has control over the world he created. He is called “Almighty” because he must be almighty to do the things that he has done, notably create and sustain everything! All power belongs to him; he is the sovereign Lord of the universe he has made. (Perhaps this is the real issue! Perhaps people would accept the biblical doctrine of creation more readily if it did not mean that he is the almighty God who will hold them accountable for what they do.) But a god who cannot create, is not a sovereign god; it is a god who does not have to be listened to. However, to acknowledge God as the creator is to accept him as the sovereign Lord, all-knowing, all-powerful, and ever present everywhere. And to accept him as the almighty God is to accept that he is the sovereign Creator.
There are many passages in the Bible that capture the revelation of this sovereign creator God very well, but a couple of Psalms do it in a very practical way. The first is Psalm 33, a psalm of praise to God. The psalm has the standard parts of the descriptive praise psalm: the call to praise (vv. 1-3), the cause for the praise (vv. 4-19), and the conclusion (vv. 20-22).
In the cause or reason for the praise, we have a carefully planned structure: verses 4 and 5 form the summary statement. Verse 4a says God’s word is right and true, and that will be developed in verses 6-9; verse 4b says God’s works are dependable, and that will be developed in verses 10-12; verse 5a says God is righteous, and that is explained in verses 13-15; and verse 5b speaks of God’s faithful loyal love, and that is elaborated on in verses 16-19.
1. His word is true. In verses 6-9 the psalmist describes how God created everything by his powerful word. He simply spoke, and everything came into existence. Borrowing from Genesis 1:3, he actually says, “he spoke, and it was.” This is the simplest expression of a profound truth. God has such power and such authority that he simply had to give the command and everything came into existence into conformity to his will. Some will say, this is poetry and not to be taken seriously. That is just silly, for the poetry simply reiterates in hymnic form the great teachings of the Bible. The desired result of this teaching, the psalmist says, should be adoration, fear, and praise.
2. His works are dependable. The works described here are the works of a true sovereign heavenly God. He nullifies all the counsels of the nations, but his plans and his will stand firm. Any plan that any nation or people have that does not harmonize with the will or plan of God will ultimately come to frustration. He rules over history, over nations, over the will of man. This too is powerful. We do not understand the choices he makes, the reasons for the way he rules; but the Bible teaches he is sovereign, and he knows what he is doing. Daniel simply praised God for his rule over history (Dan. 2).
3. He loves righteousness. Now, in verses 13-15, the psalmist focuses on how God looks into the hearts of all humans to see if there is righteousness. He must be omniscient and omnipresent and all-wise to do this. But he examines and evaluates the human heart. How can he do this? He made the human heart--if he created all things, then he certainly knows what is going on in what he made. The examination is a form of judgment, for the knowledge of God is both penetrating and evaluative.
4. He extends his loyal love to his people. In the fourth part, verses 16-19, the psalmist deals with a practical issue--warfare. He affirms that a king cannot win a battle by military armaments alone, whether horses or today’s arsenal of weapons. His strength alone cannot save him. Victory comes only if the sovereign God allows it to come. Jesus told Pilate that he, Pilate, would have no power at all unless it was given to him from above. This is the faith; this is the sovereignty of God. The truth is that God extends his faithful covenant love to his people, to deliver them from death (yes, they may die, but the covenant promises demand a future life) and from all danger. The eyes of the Lord are on those who hope in him. Believers in the sovereign love of God know that the world is not out of control, that God has his eye on them, and that nothing will happen to them outside the Lord’s plan.
Another psalm that brings the doctrine of God to the practical level is Psalm 139. It can be divided into four stanzas of 6 verses each. In the first stanza David reflects on the truth of the knowledge of God--that God knows everything about us. It is as if God has gone on a search of our lives--he knows us. He knows every move we make, and he knows the reasons for those moves before we even do them (v. 2). In fact, this knowledge of God is penetrating, because he discerns our daily activities, always evaluating them (v. 4). Specifically, this may be illustrated by our speech: before we can get the word out, God knows it entirely (v. 4). David’s initial reaction to this is that he is uncomfortable with it--it is surpassing, beyond his control. He feels hemmed in all around, not free (vv. 5, 6). And this is the natural reaction at first to the sovereignty of God. One wonders in what sense he or she may be free, if God is God. The first impulse is to escape from that penetrating knowledge--there must be some place where our wills are sovereign, we think, where we are from his sovereign knowledge.
So the second stanza, verses 7-13, raises that issue: where can we go? The theme of this stanza is the omnipresence of God--God is everywhere, and therefore there is no place to which we might flee to get away from his penetrating knowledge. But when David begins to think of some of the places he might go--the dark deep in the sea, sheol, all places of grave danger, then he begins to see God’s knowledge and God’s presence are real comforts--even there God leads him and takes his hand. Nothing can separate him from the powerful presence of God, not darkness, not bruisings, not distance or time. He is there. And he knows all about us.
The third stanza of the psalm explains why this is possible, in terms that Psalm 33 briefly mentioned. He made us (vv. 13-18). God formed both our bodies and our spirits in the womb. Of course David knows that natural reproduction was the means--but it was God who was behind it all. He supervised the details of the birth and the life that would follow while we were yet in the womb. God lovingly prepared for our lives on this earth, making us with the characteristics we have to suit his divine purpose for each one of us. And all the events of our lives were written in his book, meaning, planned out for us (divine omniscience does not need to keep a day book) before there was even one of them. Now David is filled with adoration and praise--here is a God who lovingly planned his life and prepared him for it.
So the conclusion of the psalm is the practical application in his experience. He is surrounded by enemies who hate God and his will. But David takes comfort in the fact that God will protect him, because he is loyal to God, totally rejecting them and their evil ways. But he wants God to continue to examine him to make sure there is no evil way in him. He wants to be loyal to God, so that God’s everlasting plan will work out completely in his life.
In these psalms we have a grand picture of the sovereign God who is the creator of all things, who is sovereign over all things, who knows all things, who is present with all things, who evaluates everyone, and who protects his own by his love and righteousness. Rather than try to explain how this works with our wills, or try to escape from this penetrating presence, all we can do as believers is put our trust in him and his word and seek to do his will, knowing that he is the one true and living God, our Maker and our Father in heaven who loved us and brought us into fellowship with himself through the Son and the Spirit.
The most important question that anyone has to answer is, “Who is Jesus Christ?” Or, as he put it himself, “Who do you say the Son of Man is?” How you answer that question determines your faith, and your fate.
Almost everyone believes that Jesus lived, that he was a teacher, a famous prophet, even a miracle worker, although they may not accept everything the Bible says about him. Islam believes he was a good prophet, that he died and went to heaven, and that he will come again (as a prophet of Islam); but it does not believe that he is God and that his death was salvific. And liberal teachers in the churches today might claim something similar, that he was a good man, a great teacher, a wonderful example, but not God in the flesh. But the Bible and thereafter the traditions of the church claim much more for him.
So in this section of the study we want to examine the doctrine of the Son of God, or, the second person of the trinity, called in his earthly ministry Jesus the Christ, or the Son of Man, or the Son of God. The early church struggled with the issue until they finally formulated the creed and condemned Arianism. At the heart of the Nicene Creed are these words:
“And [we believe] in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father … .”
In other words, although Jesus was a fully human person, he also was and is fully God. When we speak of the deity of Christ, we cannot water it down to mean that he was supernatural, or a divine being, or most God-like. He was and is God; but he was manifest in the flesh. This is why he alone is able to redeem us. This is why he is to receive our worship and our obedience.
Those who have rejected this teaching in part or in full often claim that the doctrine was formulated after the fact by the early church, and that it was never there in the Bible. But this is simply not so. The teaching is anticipated in elementary form in the Old Testament, imbedded in the Gospels, and fully explicated by the apostles. When we read the great prophecies of Isaiah about the Messiah, we catch a glimpse of what that greatness would be: he would have such an amazing birth (Isa. 7:14) that he would be known as Immanuel, “God with us.” And by his nature and through his works he would be known as the “Mighty God” and the “Everlasting Father” (Isa. 9:6). This one alone would bring everlasting peace and righteousness to the earth, for he would come into the world for that purpose. Isaiah is very precise: the child would be born, but the Son would be given. It would take the incarnation (the subject of a later section in this series) before people could fully comprehend what that meant.
A careful reading of other passages will also show that the prophecies identify the Messiah with or as the LORD. Isaiah 48:15 and 16 identifies him as the LORD, the one who is sent into the world by the Spirit. By itself this passage could be given different interpretations; but as part of the collection of Messianic passages it underscores the theme that the Messiah is not merely a mortal. Malachi 3:1-5 describes the Messiah as the messenger of the covenant who will come to his temple (the house of the LORD), but clarifies that it is Yahweh, the speaker, who will draw near. Proverbs 30:4 equates the Son with God the creator. These, but a few, give us a hint that this one who will be the Messiah will be much more than just a great human.
And the New Testament fully explicates these prophecies as fulfilled in the person of Jesus. There was a birth in Bethlehem, for Messiah was to be born of the family of Judah. He would be known as Jesus. But the Son of God did not begin at Bethlehem. John 1 claims that he was the eternal Word, God himself, who created everything that exists, and that in time he became flesh and dwelt among us. Philippians 2:6 makes it clear that he is God, and that he set aside the use of some of his attributes to take on the form of the human, and die for the sins of the world. Titus 2:13 equates Jesus with God. Romans 9:5 describes him as God, who is blessed forever. And Revelation 5:13 and 14 portray Christ as deity. These are but a few of the New Testament passages that one would consider first in dealing with the topic.
But the creed had to focus on some of the language the Bible uses for Christ, and some of that language has confused people from time to time. How could the Son be said to be begotten if he is eternally God? To study this more closely I have chosen to use a Pauline passage, Romans 1:1-7, which shows that Jesus is the son of David and the Son of God, and that he has authority over us by virtue of his deity. While we will be studying this passage we will consider other related passages as well, and have several more sections on the doctrine of Christ.
There are many passages in the Bible that we could use for the basis of this study, but this simple introduction to the Book of Romans states clearly what the message of the New Testament is all about--it is about the person and work of Jesus Christ the Son of God.
The first two verses of the book are simply a salutation or greeting from the apostle Paul to the church in Rome. But the fact that there is a church at all and that it is devoted to the worship and service of Jesus, indicates the deity and the authority of this one person. Accordingly, in the simple salutation we see some references to the doctrine of Christ that is the foundation and focus of the church.
This is the practical starting point for all who worship Jesus as Lord and Savior--they are his servants. Paul’s expression, “a bond-servant of Jesus Christ,” is the equivalent of the Old Testament’s “servant of the LORD [Yahweh],” because to Paul they are one and the same person. This is the highest title that any human could have: Moses, David, Paul--they are all the servants of the LORD. The word for LORD in the Old Testament is the revealed name Yahweh, explained by God to Moses as “I AM.”1 The explanation “I am” is the Hebrew word ‘ehyeh (pronounced eh-yeh); the name Yahweh is actually the third person form of the verb and would translate “He is.” Worshipers declare, “He is!” But God explains that it means “I am.”
Paul is simply identifying Jesus as this Yahweh of the Old Testament, which is why he calls himself his servant.
The term “servant” also needs some clarification. Unlike today, a servant in those days would actually be owned by the master. He, his family, his possessions, all belonged to the master. Likewise, anyone who is the servant of the LORD, or as Paul puts it, a bond slave of Jesus Christ, no longer is his or her own; they have been bought with a price, the blood of Jesus, and are now under his absolute authority. If Jesus were just a good man, a great teacher, no such authority would be expected. But because he is God the Son, we owe him our lives. This is why in the book Paul will say that if we confess with our mouth that Jesus is LORD (=Yahweh) and believe in our hearts that God has raised him from the dead, we shall be saved” (Rom. 10:9).
Paul was called to be an apostle; others are called for different works in his kingdom. But the word “called” indicates that this life-long task was not of his (or our) choosing, but God’s. Jesus called all the disciples from their jobs, and they dropped everything and followed him. That is authority. Paul’s calling was dramatic: on the road to Damascus God dramatically changed his whole life. To be called of God means that we have a new purpose in life, a new mission, a new reason for living. And that new life and mission is to worship and serve Jesus Christ our Lord.
Paul was therefore separated to the Gospel. He was dedicated by God’s calling to take the good news to other lands. People do not choose ministries and avenues of service; God chooses people and equips them for the task before them.
The Gospel, or good news, that Paul was to declare was promised beforehand in the Old Testament. Once Paul came to faith in Jesus the Messiah, then all the Old Testament made complete sense to him (and he had studied it all his life). Paul’s formulation of the Gospel, that Christ Jesus died according to the Scriptures, was buried, and rose again according to the Scriptures, was clearly drawn from the Old Testament and explained fully in the person of Jesus, the Messiah. So both Paul’s calling and his message came from God. Thus it is with all believers.
The subject matter of Romans is stated in the words “concerning His Son.” That is what Paul is writing about. He will here say two things about the Son: he was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and he was declared to be the Son of God by the resurrection.
Jesus was born into this world as a Davidic king, in line to the throne of David, king of Judah. This is what people usually focus on at the season of Christmas--the birth to Mary in a stable, in Bethlehem, in the tribe of Judah, and of the family of David. It is familiar material for even the most irregular Church-goer.
But the text says that he was the son of David “in the sphere of” the flesh. There was a birth, to be sure, but that was not the whole story; it was only the story of his physical nature. People do not usually say someone was born into a family “in the sphere of the flesh” unless there was another sphere to consider as well. The physical birth did not mark the beginning of the Son of God, only the beginning of his physical life on earth. He entered the race through the line of David so that he would become the promised Davidic king and restore the dominion that was lost because of sin.
Jesus was “declared to be” or perhaps “appointed to be” the “Son of God” by the resurrection from the dead. This was not in the sphere of the flesh, but by the power of the Holy Spirit. What this means is that the resurrection from the dead demonstrated that Jesus was not just another physical descendant of David--he was the divine Son of God who had authority over death and the grave.
(Note how the doctrines are so intricately connected. It is no surprise that unbelievers try to nibble at the issue from the related themes, the resurrection, the virgin birth, the miracles, for if those are taken away, the person of the Son of God is changed).
Hebrews 1 explains how this appointment developed in the exaltation of Jesus (resurrection and ascension = exaltation; we shall study these in later sections). The writer draws upon Psalm 2 and Daniel 7:9-14 to show that Jesus is the heir to the throne of David and that he would come from heaven to claim his throne. The Bible says that the heir would become the king and have the title of Son of God when he ascended the throne (2 Sam. 7:14). So every Davidic king could claim the title “Messiah” (= “anointed one”) or “Son of God” (= heir to the kingdom of God) because of these promises. No doubt that was uppermost in Peter’s mind when he first declared his faith that Jesus was the Christ, the son of the living God. But Hebrews takes this all to another level because Jesus was not a normal son of David. Jesus was not crowned as a king on earth, but he died and rose again and ascended to heaven where God declared him to be the Son who “this day” (=exaltation) was begotten (from the dead; Rev. 1:5). So his exaltation inaugurated his kingship; but he awaits the second coming to put all things under his authority. This resurrection declared for all time that Jesus was not merely a mortal in the line of David with a claim to a special title; it declared that he was by nature the Son of God.
But what exactly does “Son of God” mean? We know it cannot be literal, for that would mean that the “Father” procreated him by a woman or a goddess (as the pagan religions, which had such human activities among the gods). These ideas are foreign to the true faith of the Bible. There is no heavenly consort; God has no wife; there is no goddess. And Arianism, which claimed that Jesus was the first of God’s creation, cannot be right either, for it denies too much Scripture. To understand what is meant here we have to consider several lines of revelation.
1. The “Father-Son” Language. At least 100 times in the Gospels Jesus called God His Father. Is this just a general reverence to the spark of divinity in all people (for they too can refer to God as Father), or does it actually mean He was procreated in some way, or does it have a totally different meaning?
We have to link this terminology with the claims of Jesus Himself, namely, that He was sent to earth by the Father (John 14:24; John 5:26). Or the claims of those he taught, namely that he is the eternal God who created everything (John 1). And then there is also the hostile witness of his enemies: they sought to kill him because he made himself equal with God (John 5:17). From a human point of view, that is why he died: the charge was blasphemy. Or, study the parable of the vineyard: the owner sent his son to the vineyard, and they killed him (Matt. 21:33-46). Why? Because he was the son. In other words, there would have been no cross without Jesus’ claim to be equal with God the Father and heir of all things. And everyone, believer and unbeliever alike, acknowledges that Jesus was crucified. So the point of Jesus’ use of the “Father-Son” language was meant to teach that he was equal to the Father in nature but subordinated to the Father for the mission.
2. The “Only Begotten Son” Language. The second piece of evidence we must examine is the expression “only-begotten.” It is the Greek word “monogeneis.” This is not simply “begotten,” for that expression can be applied to all believers, those who have been begotten or born again by the Spirit. This is a unique expression for a unique person, the only-begotten Son of God. The expression appears in John 1:14, 4:18, 3:16, and 3:18. It would literally mean the “only generated one.” This is the key expression for the doctrine of “the eternal generation of the Son,” meaning, he always was the only begotten Son. The expression does not refer to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, because he is the Son from eternity past.
Perhaps the language can be better understood if contrasted with synonyms. Take the verbs “make,” “create,” and “beget.” The verb “make” is general; one can make dinner, clothes, a house, or any other product. The “create” can have the same objects, but usually elevates the act to an art: one creates a masterpiece, or a work of art, or a symphony. While these creations bear the imprint of the creator, they do not share his nature. But “beget” is different. You can only beget a child that has the same nature as you have--a son or a daughter. There is nothing else you can beget (unless you were speaking very figuratively). Your son or your daughter will inherit his or her nature from you--genes, personality--all of it. You can use “make” or “create” for producing a child; but when you use “beget” it only means you produce a child that has your nature.
Now follow this carefully. If Jesus is said to be the begotten Son of God (using the figure from human language to make the point), then Jesus has the same nature as the Father. If Jesus has the same nature as God the Father, then Jesus is divine and eternal as well. If he is eternally God, then there was never a time he was literally begotten--which is why we know the language is figurative to describe his nature, and not his beginning. To call Jesus “the only begotten Son” means that he is fully divine and eternal. He is God the Son.
This is why the creed says that Jesus was “begotten, not made.” Why? Because he is of one substance with the Father.
One more point. The word “begotten” has “only” (mono-) prefixed to it. There is only one. This means that Jesus has a unique relationship with the Father--they two along with the Holy Spirit make up the Godhead. You and I, if we are believers, have been born into the family of God--we are said to be begotten of God. But we are not “only-begotten.” That refers to Jesus’ divine nature. We were adopted by grace and given the divine nature by the Spirit so that we may be called the children of God. But Jesus--he is very God of very God. He is the only-begotten Son of God (that is the part of the creed that reads “of very God”), which means that he is God (that is the part that reads “very God”).
3. The “I Am” Language. The third line of evidence concerns the Lord Jesus Christ’s use of “I am.” Although there are times when “I am” in Jesus’ words mean simply “It is I,” or “I am here,” there are a number of occasions where it clearly means that he was identifying himself as the “I Am” of the Bible. In the Old Testament the great “I am” revelation has numerous predications that make amazing claims: I am with you always, I am your healer, I am your rock, I am the first and the last, I am Yahweh and there is no other,” etc. And so too do we find Jesus’ revelation of himself making similar claims: I am the way, the truth, and the life; I am the resurrection and the life; I am the good shepherd; I am the door; I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, etc.”
But there are certain passages that stick out because of their claims of “I am” without predicates. In John 8:58 the Pharisees were disputing over the identity of Jesus, and Jesus said that Abraham rejoiced to see his day (perhaps a vision of the sacrificial death of Jesus). They challenged this statement because Jesus was not yet fifty years old. Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I Am.” And they wanted to kill him for blasphemy. In that very same chapter, verses 24 and 28, Jesus said, “unless you believe that I am … .” Now, if you compare Isaiah 43:10, 11, you will see that same thing being said by God in the Old Testament. Clearly, Jesus was equating himself with Yahweh, the I Am of the Old Testament. These and other passages shop that Jesus was identifying himself with God. Finally, in John 10:30 Jesus declared “I and the Father are one.”
All these claims and works of Jesus would have fallen flat after his death if he had not risen from the grave. But he did rise from the grave, and ascended into heaven, and will come again to judge the world. That resurrection declared that he was indeed the Son of God, not in a general sense, but in his nature equal with the Father. He is the one who came into the world as Immanuel, God with us, and not merely one born in time.
What is the effect of this on all who believe in Jesus? There are three listed here: (1) We receive grace and peace through Jesus Christ; (2) we receive a commission to serve him in this life; and (3) we must be set apart to him, sanctified, for he is our Lord and our God.
If Jesus is not the divine, eternal Son of God, of one substance with the Father, then all Christian worship of him is idolatrous. But if he is the true and living Lord, then all worship must be in Christ Jesus, for no one comes to the Father except by the Son
The human dilemma cannot be solved by human efforts; for when we observe the world around us, or the world at any point in history, we find disaster. In the place of grace we find indifference, animosity, and even cruelty; and in the place of truth we find deception and confusion. The Bible describes the spiritual condition of the unbelievers in the world as dead in trespasses and sins, and walking in darkness, that is, ignorant of the truth and living in sin and despair. Darkness in the Bible signifies life in sin away from God; and death is its punishment. If the world is spiritually dead and enveloped in spiritual darkness, it cannot possibly find spiritual life and light -- apart from a work of sovereign grace.
And so the good news of the gospel is that God entered the human race, breathed life into believing human beings by his Spirit, and transferred them into his marvelous light. Thus, they are alive in him, walking in the light, and looking for the glorious appearance of the one who is the light and the life. The Nicene Creed focuses on the nature of the Son in this great incarnation by affirming that he is
“God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven … .”
In the first chapter of John’s Gospel we have these truths clearly stated. There are four parts of the teaching developed here: the nature of the Word, the witness of the Word, the regeneration by the Word, and the revelation from the Word.
The first five verses of the chapter describe our Lord Jesus Christ as the source of life and light -- the very antithesis of the spiritual condition of the world.
What strikes you first is the fact that he is called the “Word.” It is the Greek term logos. What is clear from this is that “Word” describes Jesus as the one who completely reveals the Father (see v. 18). He is the full expression of the Godhead, the Alpha and Omega (the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, indicating he is the complete revelation). He is the first word of creation, and the last word of Revelation.
But there is more, much more, here, and we shall only begin to uncover it. Throughout the Old Testament God was described frequently in human terms (we call those expressions anthropomorphisms, from the Greek words for “man” and “form,” meaning God is described in human terms). The writers described God as if he had hands and feet, or ears and eyes; he was said to laugh, ridicule, turn his back, come down for a closer look, and all kinds of all too human descriptions. They were figures of speech to communicate what God is like on our terms so that we could understand. These were the words used to describe God. But in the fulness of the time God sent his Son into the world to reveal God fully, and all those “words” became literally and historically true: God did come down to earth, and as Jesus he did have ears and eyes and hands and feet--he lived out the revelation of God and so is called the “incarnate Word,” the revelation of God in human flesh. In this he not only fulfilled Scripture but became the culmination of all revelation (Heb.1:1,2).
John offers three descriptions of the Word. First, he was in the beginning. Actually, the article “the” is not present in the text; it simply has “in beginning.” So before anything else, before the creation in Genesis even, the Son of God was there. He is beyond time; he is eternal. Second, John says he was with God. The idea of “with” is that the Son had a close and intimate existence with God the Father. Before time began the Father and Son were together as one, a relationship that is unparalleled in existence. And third, John says he was God. This does not mean that the Son was a divine creature, a heavenly creature, a lesser god (among many), a former creation who became a deity--no, it simply declares that he was God, equal with the Father and the Spirit. So the passage opens by declaring that Jesus Christ is both divine and eternal.
If verses 1 and 2 describe the nature of the Word, verse 3 describes his power. He created everything that exists. This idea is taught in Psalm 33:6-9, Colossians 1:16, and Hebrews 1:2. So the Word reveals the Father, but the initial revelation of the Father is the creation, for the heavens declare the glory of God (Ps. 19).
We have seen that God the Father is the creator; now we learn that was all done by the Son. We cannot sort out all the distinctions here, but in general it should be noted that every work of God involves the entire Godhead, for while there are three persons in the Godhead there is one God. For every work, the Father decrees it, the Son does it, and the Spirit enables it to be done. So the Bible will mention at different times the work of God in different terms. The Son, in this place, is declared to be the active agent of creation. Nothing exists that was not made by him. But it came from the Father’s decree; and it was accomplished through the Spirit’s hovering over the deep and preparing for creation (Gen. 1:2).
Now, as you read Genesis 1 carefully you will notice that the predominant theme is that the means or creation was the spoken word of God. “And God said” occurs ten times (which the teachers of Israel observed paralleled the ten commandments for humans). As God commanded nature and all forms of life, the different parts of creation came into existence or took form. John is telling us that the living Word, Jesus Christ, spoke the creative word in Genesis. In fact, there is also a subtle word play in Genesis that brings out this connection: in Hebrew “let there be” (yehi) is the shortened spelling of the verb “to be” which in the longer spelling is the holy name “Yahweh,” which the LORD interpreted to Moses to mean “I AM.” So John indicates that the Word of God created everything; and in Genesis the I AM was the One who said “Let there be,” and “there was.”
Now John turns to Jesus’ mission. One of the major themes in the book is that Jesus is the life: “I am the way, the truth, and the life”; “I came that they might have life”; “I am the resurrection and the life” (see, for example, John 5:26, 6:57, 10:10, 14:6). Not only did the Son of God create life, he holds it together by his powerful word (Heb. 1:2), and he is able to give it again if we should die (John 11). He is life, in the fullest sense of the term. There is no life without him.
This life, Jesus Christ, is the light of all humankind. Recall that the light was the first thing created in Genesis--“Let there be light.” Its purpose was to dispel the darkness that covered the earth. And so light became a symbol of God, his nature, his reign over the earth. Those who remained in darkness, meaning sin, oppression, war, and gloom, Isaiah predicted, would see a great light (Isa. 9:2) in the region of Galilee of the nations. Jesus came preaching in Galilee, announcing, “I am the light of the world.” Light represents life and understanding, or the truth. He came to reveal the Father, and by so doing guide people in the way of righteousness.
But even though the Word is life and light, that light, that truth, was not “apprehended” by people who are in darkness. The term conveys to us that those who are in sin and unbelief neither understand nor receive the truth, They cannot, for light and darkness are mutually exclusive. Darkness cannot apprehend the light, meaning, sinners cannot receive Jesus and remain in sin. Light invades and destroys darkness; when Jesus enters a life, that life is transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. But darkness itself cannot apprehend the truth. T. S. Eliot in “Ash Wednesday” writes:
If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.
O my people, what have I done to thee.
Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and
deny the voice.
So the Word is the light that shines in darkness; but the darkness does not apprehend it--not without the grace of God.
The discussion now turns to the witness of John the Baptist. Verse 6 introduces him: “There was a man sent from God.” Even the witness to the light was sent from God, so thorough was the preparation for the revelation of the incarnation.
Then, in verses 7 and 8 he describes his mission: he came as a witness (the word is martyr) to the light. The witness points to Christ, and Christ reveals the Father. So how do people get to God? --through Jesus Christ. And where do they find Jesus Christ? --witnesses point to him. The darkness, that is, the unbelieving world, needs someone to guide them to the light. Today, all Christians are to be witnesses. But as the prophets would say, woe to the witnesses who do not point people to the light.
John the Baptist, verse 8 clarifies, was not the light. This is repeated in verses 19-33 where he himself disclaimed, saying, “I am not the Messiah.” What was he then? A voice. He was a voice crying in the wilderness to prepare a way for the Lord, as the prophets had foretold (Isa. 40). All too often today many witnesses blur the distinction, and make themselves lights to be followed, make themselves the center of their ministry or their church. Witnesses, whether ministers or not, have to say clearly, “I am not the light!” “I am a witness to the light.” I am a voice. “He is the one you should follow.”
John was not the light. There was a true light coming into the world, and that was Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. When the text says that the true light illumines everyone, it does not mean that everyone will be converted and enter heaven’s kingdom. That is clear from the Bible as a whole, and from Jesus’ preaching as well (“repent, or you shall perish”). What is meant here is clarified by the work that the Holy Spirit does today, continuing what Jesus began (according to Acts): he convicts the world in respect of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment (John 16:8). The Holy Spirit works in the earth with this ministry so that everyone receives some degree of light, some knowledge and some conviction; how they respond to the light they receive will determine whether or not God sends them more light (see the story of Cornelius in Acts). Well, this is what Jesus did when he walked on earth--he revealed the will of the Father and called people to repentance--and it is what he continues to do today through the Holy Spirit.
The sad report of verse 10 is that the world did not know him (compare Isaiah 1:3). When Jesus came into the world, that world was so blinded by sin that it did not recognize who he truly was. It still does not, even though most people know something about Jesus.
John is using the word “world” in a couple of ways. First, it is a place: Jesus came into the world, a place that was made by him. Second, it refers to the present evil system and members of Satan’s domain--“the world (people) knew him not.” Verse 11 makes the point again; and John 12:37 explains that they simply did not believe in him, so they could never truly know him.
Those who respond to the light by faith, that is, those who believe in Jesus Christ, are given the authority to become the children of God. This is a different word than that which is used to describe God’s own Son. We enter the family of God by faith in Jesus; and when we do God imparts to us light and life, that is, spiritual understanding and eternal life. If we try to gain all the understanding before entering the kingdom by faith, we will never enter. We have to respond to the amount of light given to us with faith before we receive more.
John explains that becoming a child of God is not a natural process (v. 13). This is a spiritual birth (read John 3 about Nicodemus). It is not a physical birth (“not of blood”), nor is it even by human decision (“not of the will of the flesh”), nor of a father (“not of the will of man”). It is a spiritual birth, a new birth, what the Bible calls regeneration. And while many professing Christians prefer not to talk about being “born again” or about the “new birth,” (as if it was some strange expression from the fundamentalist circles) Jesus did, and he said that was the only way anyone was ever going to get into heaven.
Regeneration is the divinely mysterious act by which the Word enters the human spirit, raises that person from spiritual death (alienation from God) and spiritual darkness (ignorance of God), and gives that person spiritual life (union with God forever) and spiritual understanding (illumination by the Spirit through the written word). It is a work of God; but from our perspective it happens when we by faith accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. There is no salvation, no eternal life, no acceptance with God, without this spiritual transformation.
Regeneration is not a process throughout life: there is a point in our life when we pass from death to life, from darkness to light, from being separated from God to being accepted by God. It will take the rest of our lives to work it out in every area of our lives, and to learn more and more, but regeneration itself refers to when we are born into the family of God--it is our salvation.
So the first part of his coming into the world was to bring light to all. The second part of the mission of Jesus was to reveal the Father; and this is done simultaneously with illumination and regeneration in many cases. But in general it happened at the incarnation.
Here, then, is the basic passage for the doctrine of incarnation (carn, “flesh,” into flesh). The text says that the Word took to himself flesh and “tabernacled” among us--pitched his tent. The background, of course, is the Israelite experience in the wilderness with their tabernacle or tent of meeting. Once Israel put up the tent, the glory of the LORD entered it and dwelt among them, concealed from their view by the tenting. That brilliant, luminous cloud that had represented God’s presence through the wilderness now was dwelling in the holy of holies. John is saying that the flesh of Jesus is like that tent, both enabling the glorious Lord to dwell among his people and concealing his glory from their view. Jesus, then, is the same LORD of glory in the Old Testament who dwelt among people; but now that dwelling is more fully expressed in the incarnation.
John says that they saw his glory. I think that in the fullest sense this is referring to the transfiguration (Matt. 17) where John and the two other disciples saw the glory transform the appearance of Jesus (see also Rev. 1). But it also means that they witnessed the unique splendor of the life and work of Jesus in their midst. They saw the miracles, heard the teachings, witnessed the death, and celebrated the resurrection appearances. The glory they saw was the glory of the only begotten of the Father, and the resurrection declared that once and for all.
The glory that John describes was “full of grace and truth.” We see so little grace or truth today--it is a struggle to maintain either, or both. Some folks you meet may be very gracious, but at the cost of the truth; others may hold fast to the truth, but exhibit not an ounce of grace or compassion. Jesus not only had a perfect balance of grace and truth, but a full measure of each. He was unique in this, but then he is unique--he is the living Word, the glorious God who provides life and light to us. And the only way the human dilemma could ever be resolved was for God himself to come into this world and tabernacle among people for the expressed purpose of bringing life and light to the world.
John prefaces his remarks to remind us that Jesus is the pre-existing Word. He was younger than John the Baptist, but preceded him as well. In the proper time God brought grace and truth to mankind in the person of his Son, Jesus the Messiah, the Lord of glory. Apart from the ministry of the Son of God in this world, there is no salvation, no hope, no light or life. But because Jesus is the Lord of glory, he has redeemed us, and we worship him.
The doctrine of the incarnation is central to the Christian faith because it is central to the eternal plan of God. Without this doctrine, Jesus is just another human being; without this doctrine there is no salvation for us in him; and without this doctrine it is wrong for people to worship him. Today, many people, including theologians and church leaders unfortunately, would be just as happy to say that Jesus was just a prophet, or a great teacher, as Islam and Judaism would allow; but the Bible says more than that, much more--and not simply in the New Testament, but in the Old Testament prophecies about the person and work of the Messiah.
It is a fundamental teaching of the historic Christian faith that God came into this world in mortal flesh to redeem us. The word “incarnation” means “in flesh.” And John declares this truth very early: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . . The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:1 and 14). This is how the prophecy of Isaiah about “Immanuel,” God with us,” came about (Isa. 7:14). Paul writes, “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem them that were under the Law” (Gal. 4:4). There was a birth in Bethlehem, but that birth was anything but natural. It was the birth of Jesus, a Jewish man from Galilee; but it was in that birth that God the Son entered the human race. The one born to the virgin Mary was conceived by the Holy Spirit; he would be fully human, but he would also be divine--this is his twofold nature. Thus, Isaiah was very precise as it turns out when he wrote that a child would be born, but a Son would be given (Isa. 9:6).
About a thousand years ago Anselm expounded on this doctrine in his classic work, Why God Became Man (Cur Deos Homo). He eloquently discussed what the Bible clearly teaches about the person of Jesus Christ. It was God’s plan for the human race to triumph over sin, death, and the grave; but there was no human qualified or able to do this, for all are sinful and need salvation themselves. And so God himself would have to enter the human race , become one with his creation, in order to bring about the victory. He would be fully human, living out every aspect of mortality through to the suffering of a horrible death; but he would also remain divine, fully able to conquer sin, the temptor, death and the grave--and fully qualified to do it because he alone was free from sin. The entire process of the incarnation is a mystery to us, as are most of God’s works (once we acknowledge God exists, however, then anything is possible with him, whether we understand it or not). Anselm observed that God had formed a man (Adam) without a father and a mother; and that he had formed a woman (Eve) without a father or a mother nor by natural reproduction through a mother, but from as man; and so he could form Jesus, without the natural reproduction of parents, but using a woman. And by entering the human race this way, the Son had to lay aside the use of some of his divine attributes for a while (this is the doctrine of the kenosis, which we will consider below).
The angel announced to Mary and Joseph that the holy child who would be born of Mary would be conceived by the Holy Spirit (see Matt. 1:18-25; Luke 2:26-38). The child would not have a human father to pass on his nature; and neither would the child draw his human nature from the mother who would give birth to him. This was a special creation by the Holy Spirit so that the child Jesus would not be born with a sin nature. The doctrine of the virgin birth is necessary because as God in the flesh Jesus had to be sinless in order to save those who were sinners. The Church of Rome argues that Jesus did draw his nature from Mary, and so it has taught that Mary also had to be sinless (the doctrine of the immaculate conception). But the Scripture nowhere teaches that Mary was sinless in order to give birth to the Savior.
That issue aside, we must focus on the clear teaching of the Bible that Jesus was born of a virgin through the work of the Holy Spirit so that he was fully human and fully divine and completely sinless.
It is very important that Christians be clear on this teaching. Jesus Christ was not just another man--although he certainly was a man. He was not just another prophet--although he certainly was a prophet. Jesus Christ is God in human flesh. When God the Son entered into the human race, his creation, he did so to redeem it. When he arose from the dead and ascended into heaven, he was returning to his eternal home in glory. But something had changed through the incarnation, forever! There is now a “God-man” in heaven preparing for our arrival. Because Jesus is there as a glorified man as well as the glorious eternal divine Son, the way is open for all of us humans to enter in and share his glorious estate.
If Jesus is not God (note I am saying “God,” not “a god” or “a divine person” or “a supernatural person”), then it is wrong for us to worship him. That would be idolatry. But we do worship him because he is God. When he was here on earth he revealed by his words and his mighty works that he was indeed God with us. And his enemies certainly understood this, for they put him to death under the charge of blasphemy (if he had never claimed to be God they would not have had a case against him). And then his resurrection from the dead proved him to be the Son of God (Rom. 1:1-7).
Today there are a lot of theologians and ministers who argue that the deity of Jesus was a later idea made up by the early Christians to compete with the Roman idea of a divine emperor. They contend that primitive Christianity did not have the doctrine, but the early church needed a God to compete with Rome and with Judaism, and so they developed the ideas about Jesus. But the facts of the life and especially the death and resurrection of Jesus make it clear that this was no later idea inserted into the creeds of the faith or the Bible itself--the whole Gospel assount is a single theme--how the divine Son of God came into the world to redeem us. And besides, the early Christians were already worshiping him as God. Moreover, the doctrine of the incarnation was why the Christian faith had been such a stumbling block to so many people in the first century--and continues to be so today. But Paul holds firm to the essentials of the faith:
“The mystery of godliness is great:
he appeared in the flesh,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached on in the world,
was taken up into glory” (1Tim. 2:16).
And the apostle John in the beginning of the Book of Revelation sees a vision of the Lord Jesus Christ in glory, and hears him declare, “I am the first and the last, the living one. I was dead; but I am alive for ever more. And I hold the keys of death and hades” (Rev. 1:17b, 18). This is the language that was used in the prophets, especially Isaiah, for the true LORD God. Jesus is that LORD God. But he declares there that he came into the world and died, but is now alive for ever more. That is the description of the incarnation; that is the Son of God having come down and being made man, but now in glory again.
We must also note that the doctrine of the incarnation is bound up with the doctrine of the trinity, or more precisely, the tri-unity of the Godhead. And this is the greater mystery of the faith. The Nicene Creed is arranged according to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; but it does not attempt to articulate the meaning. God is one essence, but exists in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit (not three people, but three persons of one essence). All three persons are at once and fully God. All persons of the Godhead are fully active in any and every work of God--the Father decrees, the Son fulfills, and the Spirit empowers. But the Son is also fully human now, because divinity and humanity were joined in him. The two natures of Jesus are designated the hypostatic union by theologians; but this is not something we can fully understand as humans.
To speak of the incarnation, then, is to speak of the nature of Jesus Christ the Son of God as human as well as divine. But to speak of the incarnation also opens the discussion to God’s plan of redemption for a race that is hopelessly lost in sin.
In Philippians 2 we have the doctrinal record of what the incarnation meant to our Lord. But Paul does not discuss the doctrine for the sake of doctrine alone--his chapter is concerned with how Christians serve one another, in humility, as our Lord came to serve us and to redeem us. And this is the way it should be--all doctrine is meant to inform us of the faith and to direct us in our Christlike devotion and service.
Paul first makes it clear that the greatest cause of sin is pride, and the greatest Christian virtue is humility. Through pride Satan sinned and plunged himself and a third of the angels with him into darkness. Through pride Adam and Eve sinned and plunged the human race and its world into sin. Human pride has always been at the root of sins, the cause of dissension, disagreement and wars, and the reason for the lack of understanding, forgiveness and service. Because of pride the human race was lost and cannot save itself--ever.
But through an act of humility, the greatest act of humility, God redeemed us and restored us as his new creation. Thereupon, to be a Christian is to be like Christ, even though there are some aspects of that we resist. And so Paul, in teaching the church about humility, tells it to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, who left his glory and became a human in order to redeem us and to form us into one body. Without a Christ-like humility, we will not maintain any semblance of the body that Christ established.
Philippians is best known by students of the Bible as the source of the doctrine of the kenosis (the word is derived from the verb in the passage that says that Jesus “emptied” himself and became a human). Theologians spend their time trying to determine exactly what that meant (and well they should try to determine this); but all too often folks miss the point that Paul is trying to get across, the point that he illustrates with the doctrine of the kenosis, namely, an appeal for unity based on a Christ-like humility.
Four conditional clauses are in verse 1 (Paul is not raising doubts about these, but assumes they exist when he says “if there be . . .”). First is exhortation in Christ. The word “exhortation” means counsel, rebuke, comfort (the same basic word for the Comforter, the Holy Spirit as paraclete). Paul is saying that if we received the work of the Spirit that exhorts us--which we did--then unity should follow.
Second, Paul says “if there be any consolation of love” (that is, love that encourages). Since we share in God’s love, that love should unite us. No one earned a share of God’s love, so there is no room for pride.
Third is the fellowship of the Spirit. If the same Spirit indwells us then there ought to be fellowship among us.
Fourth is compassion. This word refers to that feeling of tender compassion that a mother has for the child, brother for brother, or the like relationship. If there is any such compassion, there will be unity.
The point of verse 1 is that we do have all these things in Christ because we are the recipients of grace. And if we have these, they will inevitably lead to unity. As we had to humble ourselves to receive the grace of God, we must humble ourselves to achieve spiritual unity.
The appeal is recorded in verse 2; it has four parts to it that correspond to the four virtues of verse 1. Paul first appeals for us to be of the same mind. This is not a unity of the flesh (as verse 5 will clarify). This corresponds to the first clause of verse 1, or being in Christ--if we are all in Christ, then we should all be of one mind.
The other ideas are still a part of this grand theme of unity. The second idea is to have the same love (this corresponds to “if there is consolation of love”); the third is to be of one accord (literally of one spirit), and the fourth is to be of one purpose (the one purpose should correspond to the tender mercies and compassions in Christ).
Then, in verses 3 and 4 Paul explains how to achieve this unity. On the negative side, he says that we should do nothing for selfish ambition (this is difficult for our “me” generation). If we do something only to serve ourselves, then it is of the flesh--and Jesus would say we have had all the reward we shall get. But selfish ambition will also destroy unity.
On the positive side Paul says that we are to count each other better than ourselves. As we look around us, do we think that we are better than all of these people? (Do not confuse talents here with qualities--obviously some people are better at certain things than others--but this is asking the question of value to God). Do we think that we are more valuable to God than others around us? That is pride; it will destroy unity and harmony. Pride fixes its eyes on the flaws and imperfections of others and overlooks the same in oneself. Humility says that we are recipients of grace, and God resists the proud. Humility is self-abasing and generous; pride is self-centered and arrogant.
Now Paul brings in the incarnation. He does not leave us with all these instructions; he provides us with a pattern, a model for Godly humility--Jesus Christ the Lord. The passage is rather detailed, and would take some time to study (there are books written on these verses). But two predominant points emerge.
“Have this mind in you which was in Christ Jesus.” We say, “I have a mind to do such or so.” So here Paul uses that kind of language to tell us that our attitude and our purpose in life should be the same as Christ’s. Even though he was of the same essence as God, he did not think that being equal with God was something to grasp or cling to, but he emptied himself.
The construction of verses 6 and 7 is a little complicated, but two key verbs clarify it. The first verb is “he emptied himself” (the Greek verb is kenoo [pronounced ken-AH-oh]). To understand this verb we have to look at the two clauses that come before it. The first clause is “exisiting in the form of God.” The word “form” here refers to the inner essence. Jesus was and is of the same essence as the Father--he is divine. The second clause is “he did not consider being equal with God something to cling to.” When Jesus “emptied himself” he relinquished his rights, or the free use of his divine rights--he set aside his self-willed use of the attributes of deity. He did not cease being deity; but he surrendered his right to manifest his power and his glory for the purpose of the incarnation. We have to be careful when we explain how he emptied himself. He was, and always is, divine. But he set aside the use of some of his attributes for the purpose of his earthly ministry.
Not so with human pride. Pride clings to its rights, to its power, and is unwilling to give them up. If someone achieved such power as Jesus had, pride would probably flaunt it rather than surrender it to the service of others.
Paul then explains what it meant for Jesus to empty himself in this way: “taking the form of a servant, and being made in the likeness of man.” Note the contrast: he was the “form” of God (inner essence), and now would be the form of a servant; he was equal with God, but now he would have the “likeness” of a man (and the word here refers to the outer form). He was similar to a human, especially in outer form, but he was not exactly human--he did not share the human essence, whish is sinful. How did this come about? When he emptied himself for the incarnation?
The second key word in the section is “he humbled himself” (v. 8). This picks up where the last clause left off: being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself. It was one thing to leave glory and take the form of a human--that is emptying. But it is another thing altogether to suffer and die on the cross--that is humbling. Humbling is submissive obedience at great personal cost. In Christ we find the greatest act of obedience, and the most humbling act. Rather than fighting off death and resisting it, he willingly submitted to it, so that others might be saved. Here is the greatest heroic act the world has ever seen.
Having shown the great humility of our LORD in the service of the divine will, Paul now describes the reward for it. God exalts the humble--and God the Father exalted Christ above everything else. Note the structure of the passage: “God exalted him” is antithetically parallel to “he humbled himself.” And the statement “God gave him a name” is in contrast to “he emptied himself.” So two verbs here reverse the two verbs given earlier. That name will ultimately bring all creation to its knees before the Lord Jesus Christ, to acknowledge his deity. The beginning of this exaltation is recorded in Hebrews 1 (and we shall look at that at a later point in the creed).
The lesson of the passage is clear enough: unity in the church comes when the recipients of grace pattern their lives after Christ and respond to one another with the humility of a servant. The doctrine in the passage explains in greater detail what it meant for the Son of God to enter into this world as a human and to die for us. When we simply say “and became man” in the creed, we need to think what that must have meant for the eternal LORD God, the Son, our Savior. But because he became man, we have been redeemed, and he shall be highly exalted. We shall focus more on this in the next lesson on the creed.
The “Gospel” is a term that is used for a number of things in Christianity; it means “good news” essentially. The word is used for one or more of the four books of the Bible, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These are the four “gospels.” But the word is also used very precisely for the central doctrines of the Christian faith concerning Jesus, namely his death, burial and resurrection.
Paul clearly states that the Gospel that he preached is that Jesus died according to the Scriptures, was buried, and rose again according to the Scriptures. Paul says:
Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he as raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:1-4).
Paul then goes on to declare that Jesus made many appearances that proved that he did rise from the dead. And so the creed says:
and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures.
The point is that the Christian Gospel is not simply the facts of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, but those facts understood in accordance with what the Scriptures say. In other words, the death of Jesus has to be understood in accordance with what Scripture teaches about it--who this Jesus was who died, why his death was so important, what kind of death it was, and what it accomplished. Likewise, the burial and the resurrection have to be understood in the way that Scripture teaches--what exactly it teaches about his resurrection, why it was important, what it proved, and how it relates to his exaltation to glory.
This would mean that we must first be clear on who Jesus is. If he is not God manifest in the flesh, if he is not the divine Son of God, then his death would be at best a martydom, a great act of love and devotion--but it would not have saved anyone, it would not have made atonement.
This would also mean that we would have to be clear on why he suffered and died. Scripture teaches that it was for our sins that he died (he did not deserve to die), the just for the unjust. His death was a vicarious substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of the world. And Scripture also teaches that his death was an atonement. In other words, it was not just a physical death. For the divine Son to die was the equivalent of the human race suffering the second death, eternal separation from God. Christ, the eternal one, was separated from the Father spiritually on our behalf when he died on the cross.
This would also mean that there was a complete death, and so he was buried. He did not swoon, or faint, or go into a coma to be revived. He died, and was buried. It was a real death.
And if it was a real death, this would also mean that it was a real resurrection, one who was dead actually coming back to life. The resurrection proved that his death was an atoning sacrifice, that it accomplished what it was accomplish, and that it authenticated all of Christ’s claims.
It would take much longer to explain all the details about the Gospel that are contained in the Scripture. This is the task of the churches in their teaching and preaching ministry in the word of God. And we have our entire lifetime to focus on these truths and discover all that God has done for us. But perhaps it would be most helpful in this brief survey to look at the cardinal Old Testament prophecy about the death, burial and resurrection of the Messiah, Isaiah 52:15--53:12. The song is written in the past tense, as if it had alrready happened; but that is normal for the prophets who saw the visions and described what they had seen (called “seers”). We know from the contents of this song that its ultimate meaning is in Jesus the Messiah, for Jesus claimed to be the servant who came into the world to give his life a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28), and the apostles knew that this song was a vivid picture of the suffering of the Lord Jesus on the cross and so quoted from it in their epistles (see 1 Peter 2:21-25).
Isaiah 52:15--53:12 is the fourth of the so-called Servant Songs in the book, and the most powerful of them all. The prophet Isaiah does not always identify the servant in the oracles; at times it seems it could be referring to the righteous remnant in Israel, at times to the prophet, at times to other servants that God might use. But in this passage, a song about the suffering servant, the meaning clearly breaks free from any Old Testament application and finds fulfillment in the Messiah, the Christ--Jesus. Much of the song talks about how the innocent suffer for the sins of others, but when it comes to speaking about the LORD placing the sins of others on this one’s back so that he could justify them, the passage can have no other fulfillment but in the saving death of Jesus, the Christ.2 And so this song is about the ideal suffering servant, the one whose suffering goes beyond anything that mere mortals could accomplish in their suffering.
Down through history the sufferer has been the astonishment and stumblingblock of humanity. Ancient barbarians simply removed them from society. More civilized people have dealt more kindly; but sufferers still pose a problem for philosophers and medical doctors, and a test for the faith of religious people. People have a hard time seeing any profit in suffering; rather, it is considered a tragedy, an inconvenience that hinders progress, a fate to be avoided.
But for the Christian the point of suffering should be clearer. In summary, we may say that the Scriptures teach that it is the will of God that believers suffer--not all the time, not all the same, and some very little. That is not to say that God enjoys it, or that people should seek it. But the Bible says that it is inevitable. Jesus said that if the world hated him, it would hate us as well. Paul said all who live Godly lives in this world will suffer persecution (2 Tim. 3), and that it was given to us to believe and to suffer (Phil. 1:29). And Peter explains that Christ’s death, revealed so fully in Isaiah, is both our justification and our sample to follow so that we might know how to suffer (1 Pet. 2:19-23). Moreover, our Lord himself learned obedience through the things that he suffered (Heb. 5:8)--and if that is true of the sinless Son of God, how much more is it true of us? All of these teachings simply say that suffering is inevitable in this life, especially if we seek to live a righteous life of spiritual service.
The sample for us to follow in our suffering--if it comes--is the suffering of Jesus Christ our Lord. It is displayed graphically in the prophecy of Isaiah, written centuries before the actual death of Jesus. Isaiah displays the ideal sufferer, but never names him. That identification had to await the fulness of time, when Jesus claimed, and the disciples could see, that Jesus was fulfilling Isaiahs oracles.
The song is divided into five sections or stanzas of three verses each. The first line of each stanza gives a summary of that section. And, the entire first stanza is a summary or an overview of all that the song will say.
The grand theme of the entire song is summed up in the first three verses: the servant who endured such suffering will eventually be exalted on high to the amazement of all the world. He will be highly exalted--and the means of this exaltation is that he will “deal wisely” or “wisely prosper.” The verb describes prudent and practical wisdom that finds success doing the will of God. He will live wisely before God and therefore prosper. Jeremiah 23:5 associates this verb with Messiah’s receiving the kingdom.
Since the song will describe his death, the exaltation here assumes a resurrection. This passage does not explain that precisely, but other passages do. There could be no exaltation of one who stayed dead.
The theme of the humiliation is now developed: earlier, many were aghast or astonished at him because his form was so marred (literally ruined, spoiled). His appearance was so changed by affliction that kings were astonished that such a one should be exalted over them (v. 15). He will startle3_ftn2 these kings, for they will see what they never thought could have happened.
The point to be made here is that the suffering servant will ultimately prosper with God because he dealt wisely--he did the will of God. He has insight, and so his suffering is practical. He endures the suffering because he knows it is leading somewhere--to glory. Pain in God’s service will lead to glory (2 Cor. 4); and the pain in the sacrifice of Christ Jesus will lead to the greatest glory, his glory for ever, for he will reign as king of kings and Lord of Lords--to the amazement of all.
If we may paraphrase this verse, we would say, “No one ever imagined this!” For ages, the prophet predicts, people would not believe the word that such a suffering servant could be at the heart of God’s redemptive plan and would eventually be exalted on high. Isaiah uses a series of questions to make this point: the penitent would reflect on this, and eventually realize it--who would have imagined?
The response to his sufferings is so true to life: they are at first thought to make him insignificant, and then they are considered to be offensive. First, he was considered insignificant. Who would have thought that a carpenter’s son from Nazareth would figure in the eternal plan of God this way? He was just a tender plant out of parched ground, nothing great and glorious. Certainly not kingly. He did not appeal to them in any kingly way so that they might rally to him.
But then the more they observed them his sufferings became offensive: he was despised (v. 3). His life was filled with grief and sorrows, so that people turned away their faces. In short, they did not “esteem” him--they did not think much of him, especially in this condition, so they wrote him off, as it were.
These words point out a habit we all share, the habit of letting the sight of suffering blind us to the meaning. We don’t like to look on anyone who is suffering or even disabled. We forget that such conditions have a purpose and a future and a God. We make snap judgments about sufferers and their value to life in general or to God. The point is that suffering is a part of God’s plan to remind us of the human predicament we share, to bring us out of ourselves in sympathy and patience, and to eventually fit us for glory. It was certainly so in the case of Christ, more so than imagineable.
The earliest and most common moral judgment that people make about pain is that which is implied in its name--it is penal. People think that those who suffer do so because God is angry with them and punishing them. That is exactly what Job’s three friends argued relentlessly. Here, the people say in the words of the Isaiah the prophet, ‘we saw the suffering servant and thought that God was striking him severely.
But now they knew they were partially wrong. The hand of God was indeed against the sufferer, but the sin was not his, but theirs. It was penal--but he did not deserve it.
As we read these two verses, we must note the contrast between the “he” expressions and the “our” expressions. In the first set we see that he endured the suffering, we had the sins that deserved the suffering, and so his sufferings were vicarious--for others.
The second set shows that the sufferings were also redemptive: “our peace” and “we are healed.” The pain was the consequence of our sin; and the peace that is ours was the consequence of his suffering. Thus, the suffering was not only vicarious, but now redemptive.
This truth is confessed by Israel in verse 6. The verse begins and ends with the word “all.” So the substitutionary suffering of this servant touches all who have sinned; it benefits all who acknowledge his suffering with these correct words: “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
In every family, in every nation, innocent people often suffer for the guilty. So vicarious suffering is not unique to the Messiah. It is part of human life. Vicarious suffering is not a curse; it is part of the service we have to God and to mankind. People like Daniel, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah went into the captivity with the sinners and the idolaters--they did not deserve to go. But they were able to use it as an opportunity to proclaim God’s word. Even on a lesser note we know that parents who suffer for their children when they are sick or in need understand the impulse of vicarious suffering. People in a country suffer because of the mistakes of leaders or previous generations. We may suffer because we deserve it; but we may also suffer because of others, or out of love for others in service to other people. That is noble and magnificent: greater love has no one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15). But it is limited--it cannot save another person.
So then, as great as vicarious suffering can be, it is not redemptive when we do it. What is pictured here is that the suffering of our Lord Jesus also removed sin. When Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he became the sin-bearer for us. No other suffering could have done this. It took the suffering of God incarnate, the holy one who knew no sin, to remove the sins.
What is remarkable is that this suffering servant accepted his affliction in silence. This is almost unheard of. In the Old Testament, especially in the Book of Psalms, the sufferers either confess their sins that brought on the sufferings, or cry out that they are suffering and do not deserve it. They either confess of complain. But not the Messiah: he did not confess sin, for he had none; and he did not even cry out in complaint, for his death was vicarious. How could he remain silent? He knew the truth; he dealt wisely. If anything will enable a person to accept suffering silently it is this--the knowledge that the suffering is a service to God and will help others who are suffering.
The prophet affirms that this sufferer has done no wrong; there was no guile in him. Yet he was taken to judgment by tyrannical powers. It was a judicial murder. And when they considered that he was lawfully put to death, they gave him a convict’s grave. On this note the stanza ends: he was an innocent man, the only innocent man ever to walk on earth; but he silently submitted to oppression, an oppression that brought him a criminal’s death. From all outward appearances an innocent man’s life ended fruitlessly. But nothing could be further from the truth.
It appeared to many that the death of this servant was an awful tragedy. Surely here passed into oblivion the fairest life that ever lived. People might see it and say that God forsakes his own--even in his own sufferings that thought crossed the Messiah’s mind. But Isaiah will now declare that the suffering was efficacious--it accomplished God’s will.
“It pleased the LORD to bruise him.” This does not mean that God really enjoyed it! It means that God willed it, and that is satisfied God’s will. This is the one truth that can render any pain tolerable--God willed it. So, anyone that God calls to suffer for him must make it his or her purpose to please God with it. Therein is success with God.
This suffering was powerful to effect its intended results (i.e., it was efficacious)--it justified sinners. God made his innocent sufferer a guilt offering (Lev. 5) for many, so that by the knowledge of him people might be justified. Those who know him, those who come to personal faith in him and acknowledge their sin and his salvation, are justified. Paul explains that the Father made the Son to be sin for us, that we might become righteous in his sight (2 Cor. 5). We, the guilty sinners, have been declared righteous because of his vicarious sufferings.
By the way, the word “many” used throughout this passage is the word that Jesus used in the upper room to apply Isaiah 53 to his death: “This is my blood of the New Covenant which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matt. 26:28).
With this note the passage comes full circle. Isaiah says that because he bore the sins of many, that is, because he made “intercession” for sinners in his self-sacrificing love, God appointed him to honor and glory. The rest of the Bible explains that his exaltation involves his resurrection from thje dead, his ascension to heaven, and his coming in glory. We shall return to this when we focus on the belief in the resurrection.
Using military figures, Isaiah says that he will divide the spoil, that is, celebrate victory. But there is a hint here to of his coming to conquer evil (see Ps. 110).
So in his suffering the servant was closest to his glory; he may have been despised and rejected by people, but he was pleasing to God, and that assured his exaltation in glory.
Isaiah, then, presents a picture of the ideal sufferer. He does not identify him, but his language parallels so many other prophecies about the coming Messiah that we know it had a future fulfillment in his mind. And then when the Son of God came into the world and fulfilled this passage to the letter (so far), we know that it was a prophecy of Jesus the Messiah. By his suffering we have peace with God; by them we have been justified because our sins have been paid for. Or, to put it another way, apart from his vicarious sufferings there is no remision of sins for sinners, no hope of justification with God. That is why the Church worships and serves Jesus Christ the savior. Worthy is the Lamb!
But there is a practical side to this passage too apart from its great prophetic message. We who believe in Christ are called to follow him, and that usually involves suffering in one way or another. When Peter quoted this chapter in his epistle, he explained that it also left us a sample of how we should suffer. If God calls us to suffer in some way for him, then we need to understand that it is service to God, it is part of the pilgrimage to glory, and that we must use it to glorify him and help others. Knowing that it is part of the will of God and will lead to greater glory, we will be better able to endure it and use it properly.
2 At the risk of stating what many already know, the Greek word christos is a translation of the Hebrew word mashiakh, or Messiah (as we Anglicize it). Both words then mean “the anointed one.”
3 The verb is sometimes translated “sprinkle.” It is a verb that is used in Israel’s cultic ritual for splashing blood at the side of the altar. It therefore has been interpreted both as sprinkle and as startle (the suddenness of the splashing). But the verb never is used with objects like this, where kings would be sprinkled. And the context is stressing the sudden and surprizing revelation that no one expected.
In the last study we focused on how the Hebrew Scriptures prophesied the death and the exaltation of the Messiah. Isaiah’s oracle focused mostly on the suffering servant Messiah, but did not specifically teach the doctrine of the bodily resurrection, not as Psalm 16 and Daniel 12 so clearly describe such. But for Isaiah to speak of the exaltation of the Messiah after a suffering and death certainly assumes some kind of restoration to life, and that restoration is clearly explained in many other passages of the Bible.
The Gospel narratives record the resurrection appearances of Jesus after his death and burial; and the apostles taught very plainly this truth of the Christ-event: that Jesus who suffered and died for our sins actually rose from the dead, physically and not just spiritually, and appeared to the disciples and to larger groups of people in his resurrected body. That body was similar, but different. And the resurrection itself authenticated everything that Jesus had claimed about himself, and about his death, namely, that he was the Son of God who came into the world to die and also to conquer sin, death, and the grave, and bring immortality and eternal life to all who believe in him.
It should come as no surprise that this doctrine has been attacked more than most in the Christian faith--just the idea that Jesus came back from the dead is a stumbling block to many. Modern theologians have tried to argue that the early Church simply made up the doctrine to give people hope and comfort, and then made it the foundation of their living faith. Others suggest that Jesus may not have been dead, but in a coma, and the cold tomb may have revived him. But the Scripture makes it clear, that he was actually dead, and buried (under guard), and that he rose from the dead; and the apostles rightly based the Christian faith on his death and resurrection. Without the resurrection, Jesus died a martyr, a good man, a sample to his followers, but not as a Savior, and not as the incarnate God. With the resurrection we have the guarnatee that his death was more than this, and that we will be saved, resurrected, and exalted to glory with him. Only Jesus could say, “I was dead, and am alive for ever more; and I have the keys of death and Hades” (Rev. 1). In the resurrected Christ, then, we have the answer to all of the problems and difficulties that this life can afford--Christ has overcome them, because death has lost its sting. Therefore, we worship and serve him, the risen Savior and divine Lord.
Perhaps the clearest presentation of the doctrine of the resurrection is found in 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul defends and explains it to the church at Corinth. There were those teaching that there is no resurrection of the dead. But Paul begins the chapter by reminding them of the Gospel, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, was buried, and rose again according to the Scriptures (15:3,4). Elsewhere Paul had preached strongly from the Old Testament (Ps. 16) that Jesus had indeed been raised from the dead (see Acts 13:13-48; and 23:1-11). He then proceeded to remind them of all the appearances that Jesus made to people after his resurrection, so that there were abundant witnesses to the fact. The Lord also appeared to him, Paul, as well (v. 5).
Paul’s grand theme is announced in verse 20: “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
First, this statement is the answer to the issues raised in verses 6-19--that is why it begins with “but.” Paul had gone down the list to state what the case might be if there were no resurrection of the dead--those who had died were gone forever, Christ would still be dead, their preaching would be useless, people would still be in their sins and without hope, and they who proclaimed it would be false witnesses. This is what it would mean if Christ did not rise from the dead. But Paul declares, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead.” He was seen by scores of witnesses; it was a proven fact. And now the declaration of verse 20 affirms that those who died in the faith are not lost forever, Christ is alive forever, the preaching of the Gospel was true and life-giving, and that believers were indeed forgiven for their sins and had the assurance of eternal life.
Second, Paul says that the resurrection of Christ is a first fruit. He is here alluding to the Israelite festival of giving the first fruit of the harvest to the LORD (Lev. 23:9-14). When the spring crops began to grow, the devout Israelite would watch the fields for the first shoots of wheat. They would be given to the LORD as a token thank offering, and viewed by the worshiper as a pledge that a great harvest of wheat was to follow--this was the first. Paul clearly is using the agricultural festival as an illustration of the resurrection, for he talks about planting the body in the ground when it dies, and in season a glorious new body rises from the ground; Jesus was the first to rise, and his resurrection is the harbinger that a whole harvest of people being raised will follow in God’s plan.
But for Paul this is more than an illustration, it is a divinely foretold illustration, what we call a “type.” Biblical typology is a form of prophecy; it uses people, places and things as divinely intended revelations of the greater truths to come, the fulfillments. But one does not know the item is a type until the fulfillment comes; then looking back, we can see what God had in mind all along (manna, the sacrifices, the tabernacle, etc). Paul already knew that the Passover was a type of Christ’s death, for he declared “Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed for us” (1 Cor. 5:7). Then, in Leviticus 23:11, after the instructions about Passover, the text says the first fruit is to be presented (waved) before the LORD on the morning after the Sabbath after the Passover (verses 4-8)--that is Sunday morning. The Church rightly saw the first fruit being fulfilled in Christ’s resurrection from the dead on the first day of the week, the morning after the Saturday after the Passover. And if it is the first--then there is a great harvest to follow, at the end of the age (1 Thess. 4:16).
Third, Paul says that he is the first fruit of those who sleep. This is a figure for death--falling asleep. It is the way believers refer to death as a temporary aspect of their journey to God. Jesus himself used the expression to describe the death of Lazarus (John 11), and when his disciples did not get the point, he explained that Lazarus was dead. In Acts 7:54-60 Stephen was put to death at the hands of an angry mob. But the chapter ends calmly by saying “he fell asleep.” His death was cruel and violent, but it was a falling asleep in the Lord because the Lord has conquered death.
The verb “to sleep” in Greek is koimao (pronounced koi-mah-o); in the language a word can be changed with certain suffixes, and there is a suffix that is used that makes a noun of place; it is the suffix -terion. The word koimeterion is a “sleeping place”; we use it for our word “cemetary.” Those who believe in Jesus do not fear death, for it is a falling asleep in Jesus until the resurrection morning when he appears and the dead in Christ rise and with all who remain alive are transferred into the glorious estate of his presence.
Luke 24 records one of the post-resurrection appearances of our Lord to two disciples on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. It is Sunday afternoon, the very day that Jesus rose from the dead. The account is wonderful because it clearly teaches that the resurrection of Jesus enables us to see past all discouragement and disillusionment that this life can present. (There is a full sermon on Luke 24 in the archives of this web site).
The two disciples going home represent for us the embodiment of disillusionment and near depression that all the discouragements in this life can cause. They were soon to learn that the inspiration of the risen Christ restores the proper perspective on the circumstances of life.
The first scene (verses 13-24) sets the stage--disillusionment brings spiritual depression. The two were walking along pondering the events of the crucifixion, and Jesus came along side them asking them what was wrong. They were taken back that he would not know. But their report to him reveals that they had almost given up. “We had hoped” that he was the Messiah, but he is dead. “Some women” told us this fantastic story that he was alive; some of the men checked it out, “ but him they did not find.” They were now without hope; it was time to go home.
The second scene of the story records Jesus rebuke (verses 25-27)--the word of God will correct their thinking. Jesus rebuked them for being slow to believe in “all” the prophets had said about the Christ. “Was it not necessary” for the Christ to die before entering his glory? Of course it was. Then he proceeded to open the Scriptures to them and teach them “all” that was written about this truth. Their problem, which was not theirs alone but ours too, was that they read the word selectively--about kings and victory and salvation and driving out the enemies. Not about suffering for sins and death.
In the process of his teaching several clear truths came out: (1) the Messiah had to suffer and die first to pay for sins, and then could enter his glory; (2) the Messiah stands sovereignly apart from time and space, not limited to this world, or the grave, or our time; if he existed before Bethlehem and came into this world from the Father, he can easily exist after the grave and return to the Father; (3) the Messiah is the sovereign Lord who controls life and death--no one rushed Jesus to the cross as they had thought; it was the fulfillment of the eternal plan of God.
No wonder they later said, “Did not our hearts burn within us . . . while he opened to us the Scriptures?”
The third scene (verses 28-32) records the dramatic revelation of the risen Christ to the men in the breaking of the bread--faith in the word brings knowledge of the Word. In their home Jesus took the bread and broke it and blessed it. Then the text says “and they knew him.” And then he was gone. Jesus chose that moment, that familiar act, to open their eyes so that they could see it was he. This suggests that there was some difference in his appearance; but it also is clear that he had withheld their vision of him til this moment. They instantly recognized in the act of breaking the bread the symbolism of the vicarious suffering of the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world--this is how Jesus had instituted the New Covenant in the Upper Room. The men now knew why he died, and they knew that he conquered death, because he was alive--he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.
The fourth scene (verses 33-35) is the report of their rushing back to Jerusalem to tell others--knowledge of the resurrected Christ brings zeal. All was well now, all was different now, for he was alive. The resurrection was the answer to their discouragement and depression, to all of life’s sorrows. He had overcome the greatest enemy, death.
The Holy Spirit carries on the ministry of Jesus to us today. Through the clear exposition of the Word of God, the Spirit illumines our hearts as to the plan of God, and especially as to its victorious outcome in spite of the sorrows and sadness of life. And then, having had a clear teaching on his word, when we come to the Lord’s table for communion, the reality of his presence is solidified in the spiritual experience of the breaking of the bread. This act of Jesus became the symbol for the Church down through history of the meaning and purpose of his death, a meaning and purpose that the resurrection affirmed and confirmed. Nothing in this life can separate us from the love of God we have in Christ; because he lives, we shall live also, even though we may die here on earth.
But we must keep the proper balance in our spiritual lives--unless we hear from God through his word, clearly, faithfully, the pressures of life will control our hearts and minds, and the holy communion will become an empty ritual to be got through. But if our hearts are open, and the exposition of the word is clear so that the “burning heart” is the frequent experience of being in the word, then all the spiritual aspects of the faith and the worship will remind us powerfully that he is alive, and that our faith alone offers true hope to a world that has no hope and no expectation other than conflict, suffering and death. Christians need to be in a church where the word of God is clearly and faithfully expounded (and not in shallow little talks), where the Holy Spirit is actively at work in changing peoples lives (and not just spectacular experiences), and where the worship focuses powerfully on the risen Christ (and not just some ritual acts done routinely). All of this together will build up the faith and confidence of the believer to live for Christ in this world. Then they can proclaim, “He is alive,” “Was not our heart burning within us when he opened the Scriptures to us,” and “He was known to us in the breaking of the bread.”
Few things in life are more exhilarating and fulfilling than the crowning celebration of some great achievement. What makes it so, of course, is the struggle to get there; without the agony and the pain the triumph would not be as sweet. And while these moments seem to be the culmination, they are in reality transitions, for they open the way to new beginnings. With the celebration of victory comes the commencement of a new role to play--if the success is to have any lasting value.
Think of the great crowning moments down through history. I have just read about Charlemagne. After years of struggle he established his empire. Through war, legislature, education, and various other dealings, he was able to rescue the world from barbarism, violence and ignorance, and to begin to develop the dream of civilization. But on Christmas Day, 800, he was crowned supreme ruler over what is known as the Holy Roman Empire. He was able to give his empire the prestige, sanctity, and stability of Imperial and papal Rome. An incredible coronation! An amazing recognition! What a moment that must have been! It was a coronation that would have results for the next thousand years. But then, that is the point. With this coronation he began a new phase of his life-- extending, and sustaining the empire.
But as great as that may have been, it does not begin to compare with the greatest crowning triumph of all--the Ascension of Jesus Christ to the right hand of the Father in Heaven. When we consider the doctrine of the Ascension, we must not only think of it as the culmination of his earthly ministry, the crowning victory, but we must also think of it as the beginning of a new phase of his ministry.
The doctrine is not covered very well in many theology books or commentaries; all too often it seems to have been tucked away as an afterthought. Of course, if some theologians deny the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, they are not likely going to do very much with the ascension.
But even those who believe in the resurrection give little more than a nod to the Ascension and what it means. When I was studying in Cambridge in England it was an Ascension Day service that made an impression on me, perhaps because it was, well, unexpected. My professor cancelled classes for the services; and the services culminated in the choirs of St Johns College ascending to the roof top of the chapel tower to sing anthems to the exalted Christ that echoed across the skies over the city. But when I returned to the States and tried to attend an Ascension Day service in our church, I was surprised to learn that the church had completely forgotten about it. (And this was a liturgical church that was to observe these things.) They had to scurry about to put something together--for the five or six of us there.
The Ascension cannot be forgotten. It must not be ignored. For without the Ascension, the death and resurrection of Jesus would carry far less value, if any, in the plan of redemption. It is this glorious Ascension that is the culmination of the atoning work of Christ, the guarantee of his promises, the proof of his claims, and the beginning of his dominion.
The Nicene Creed affirms that Christ Jesus “ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father, and he shall come again with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.” In other words, the Creed affirms what the Bible clearly teaches, that after the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, after he appeared to various people and groups, he departed from his disciples from the top of the Mount of Olives. That is, he simply ascended from the earth in the clouds and entered into the heavenly court to be exalted. The ascension teaches that there is in heaven today a “God-man,” Jesus, who is fully human and fully divine. And because he ascended into heaven, those who are alive at his second coming will be caught up to be with the Lord in the air, along with those raised from the dead. And that coming of the Lord will be in the same manner as his departure, for he will descend in the clouds with saints and angels, to judge the world. The doctrine teaches that neither time nor space interferes with our Lord’s movements; he was able to travel between earth and heaven (whether a distance or a dimension we cannot say) by his own power.
The biblical teaching on the ascension, found in several passages in the New Testament (some of which draw upon the Old Testament prophecies), presents not only the fact of the exaltation, but the several purposes for it. These must be considered in any study of the doctrine; and this survey will look at several passages, beginning with Ephesians 1. At the risk of oversimplifying a profound doctrine, I have tried to make my points on the meaning of the Ascension as clear and easy to understand as possible. They are:
I. The Son of God went home.
II. The Son of God presented His work to His Father.
III. The Son of God sat down.
IV. The Son of God sent the Spirit to continue His work.
V. The Son of God will come back.
I have deliberately tried to make these point sound very human, very anthropomorphic, because of the amazing point of the Ascension--Jesus, as resurrected and glorified human, is in heaven. If in the incarnation deity entered into the human race, in the ascension humanity (joined with deity in one person) entered into the realm of God. The implications of this for you and me are staggering.
This is the basic meaning of the Ascension--he returned to heaven, to the angels, to the glory he had before the foundation of the world (John 17). He ascended up into heaven, in his resurrected bodily form. He went from the human place on earth to the Father’s place in heaven. It was not a journey into outer space; rather, he ascended and was removed from space and time into the immediate sphere of God's holy presence.
He had descended into time and space when he came into the world to save sinners. What a condescension the incarnation was. This world, with all its sin and corruption, was not and is not suitable for the Son of God. But he chose to enter for our redemption. He made it abundantly clear that he was from above, whereas we are from below. His rightful place was in glory! And so he prayed that his Father would glorify him with the glory that he had before the foundation of the world. And so when his earthly task was done that prayer was answered when he returned to his heavenly home. Imagine how the angels welcomed him!
But Jesus also knew that this world was not the place for us either. Jesus taught that in his Father's house were many “rooms”, and that he was going to prepare a place for us, that where he was, there we might be also (John 14). What a marvel that is. I think the statement refers more to spiritual preparation for us than simply constructing places: it refers to all that Christ did in completing the process of our atonement so that we could be there. Thus, the main point is that he actually wants us there with him in his heavenly home. His mission here was not merely to rescue us from judgment; it was to bring us home with him, so that we might be with him evermore. How amazing is the love of our Lord!
So Jesus completed his mission to redeem his fallen creation by bringing glorified humanity into heaven at his ascension--in his own person. This is but the foretaste of things to come, for we will follow him there. In fact Ephesians says that we are already seated in the heavenlies, because we are in him. Our future is certain. All creation is his; but his new creation is precious to him. He will not relinquish it.
The significance of this aspect of the Ascension as explained by Scripture is that heaven is our home and not this world. The entire ministry of our Lord has been and continues to be to fit us for glory. So the lesson should be clear: We must live above the world and not like the world (world meaning the present world system that has no place for the Lord). The Scripture again and again tells us not to love the world, neither the things that are in the world, for it is passing away; we are not to lay up treasures here on earth where there is corruption, but in heaven; and we are not to be conformed to this world. I think these warnings go beyond material things to attitudes. We get so caught up in worldly living--the petty competitions, the little power plays, the desire for worldly fame, and the sometimes dishonest and selfish ways of gaining such. But the Word of God reminds us that our faith in Christ is the means of victory over the world. So we must not get so attached to this world, or this world's way of thinking, that we become worldly.
Rather, we must measure everything by heavenly standards, by spiritual, eternal things (2 Cor. 4). We do not belong here. Our rightful place is with Jesus in glory. The more that we grow spiritually, the more that we become like Jesus Christ, the more we will realize that we do not belong here, and that our stay here is an earthly ministry in our eternal life. This proper perspective will influence all our choices.
So Jesus would have us realize that we are to ascend with him over the present evil world. And when we say in a worship service, “Lift up your hearts,” we mean that for that little moment we transport ourselves in the spirit on the Lord's day into the heavenlies--and that is a picture of when we in fact will be lifted out of this world and into his presence. We do this by faith now; but someday in the future we shall go to our heavenly home.
Thus Paul, in writing to the Ephesians (chapter 1), lists as one very practical issue from his Ascension our INHERITANCE. How foolish to clamor for what is temporal and temporary, when we have an inheritance in heaven.
The second significant truth about the Ascension concerns Christ's atoning work, so clearly expounded in the Book of Hebrews. There are two aspects of this. First, Jesus offered himself as the perfect sacrifice. Using the imagery of the earthly temple, that shadow of the heavenly sanctuary, the very presence of God the Father, the writer explains how Jesus our high priest took the sacrifice--himself--into the presence of God, thus completing the transaction. So in heaven now, as we may perceive it, ever before the gaze of the heavenly Father is that sacrifice that takes away the sins of the world.
Moreover, in the imagery of Leviticus, Jesus presented himself as a wave offering before the Father, the firstfruit of the dead, guaranteeing that a great harvest of resurrected saints would follow--he was the first (Lev. 23 and 1 Cor. 15). So Jesus opened heaven's gate, and entered as our eternal high priest, having made once and for all complete atonement in his blood. It is done. And so in Christ we have access into the presence of God.
Second, Jesus is also our living high priest who ever lives to intercede for us. Jesus interceded for us with his blood, and now continues to intercede for us as our advocate. In his incarnation he revealed the Father to us, so that we might see God in Christ; but in his ascension he reveals us to the Father, and God sees Christ in our place, so to speak (all we can do is try to describe a heavenly reality and divine omniscience in the limitations of earthly language).
As perfected, glorified human nature, and as the incarnate Son of God, Jesus has become the perfect mediator, the perfect high priest, the substitute for humans in the heavenly courts. As our high priest, Jesus presents our work, our prayers, our worship in an acceptable way to the Father. All that we do down here passes through our mediator to the Father and is thereby perfected. Without the presence of Christ in heaven, and the indwelling Spirit on earth, the worship and prayer and praise of the Church would be utterly inadequate. The high priest as our representative takes into the presence of God all that we do and offers it there for us. And God is satisfied. And when we sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous One, who can declare that our sins have been paid for, once and for all.
This point speaks of the heart of the faith we have through Christ Jesus. Because of the finished work of Christ as our sacrifice, and because of the continual ministry of our Lord as high priest, we have CONFIDENCE. Our consciences have been cleansed from dead works, our sins have been placed on the scapegoat, we have been justified by his blood, and we are righteous before God. Therefore we may come boldly before the throne of grace.
So Paul makes it clear that if we believe in Jesus we are "in him." We have died to sin in his death, and we have been raised to a new life in his resurrection. If we are in Christ, we must not let sin reign in our mortal bodies, but must live to righteousness. But if we sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ. Thus we have a high priest who is our mediator; and the glorious news is that there is abundant forgiveness for sins.
The Book of Hebrews (chapter 1) says that when Jesus made purification for sins he sat down. To be seated at the right hand of God the Father was the place of honor, power, and authority. In other words, the ascension meant Christ’s coronation; and his second coming will mean the beginning of his reign in actual fact. Paul in Ephesians 1 says that his exaltation was above all power and dominion and every title that can be given in this life and the life to come. Indeed, at his ascension Jesus declared, “All power is given unto me.” By this exaltation Jesus shares the universal rule of the cosmos with the Father. He especially directs all the affairs of his advancing Kingdom. But beyond that, he guides the events on earth according to his purposes. Hebrews 1 says that the whole world is being borne along by his powerful command, his spoken word.
But this is not yet the fullness of his authority. We do not yet see all things under subjection. Psalm 110 says, “The LORD said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool’.” Jesus now awaits the fullness of the Kingdom; but soon the Father will say, “Ask of me and I will give you the nations for your inheritance” (Ps. 2). Then, Hebrews 1 says, when he (the Father) again brings his firstborn into the world, then his (the Son’s) exaltation will be seen by all, and every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is LORD (Phil. 2). Then the exaltation will be complete; then will be delivered unto him, as Daniel foretells, kingdom, power, glory, and dominion, for he alone is worthy (Dan. 7).
Because the Lord Jesus Christ has been seated at the right hand of the Majesty on High, he has the auhtority and the power and the dominion of heaven, and he has given to his people AUTHORITY to advance his kingdom. At his ascension Jesus gave his commission: We are his witnesses to the ends of the earth, both by what we say and what we do. We who believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior have been given the authority to extend his kingdom throughout the world. We are ambassadors of the King.
In Ephesians Paul affirms that in Christ we have already been seated in the Heavenlies. It is as if the judgment is past and the transition completed--we are already there (this is a positional truth). And this is the guarantee that we shall reign with Christ. But in our earthly service we know that our position is safe; our victory secured. And we are more than conquerors in Christ Jesus. Therefore, we may go forth with confidence and boldness, proclaiming the Good News.
Jesus said, if I do not go away, the Comforter cannot come. And when he left, he told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Spirit was sent to give them power. So the point here is ENABLEMENT.
The Holy Spirit was sent into the world to continue the work of Jesus; this was an integral part of the promises of the New Covenant (Jer. 31; Ezek. 36). The Spirit came bearing the name and the characteristics of Jesus to the disciples, to guide and lead them into the mind and way of Christ, so that they might do the will of God in the way that Jesus did. Therefore, the Spirit convicts of sin, regenerates, sanctifies, illumines, and empowers. In short, the Holy Spirit applies the work of Jesus to people (see John 16).
In continuing the work of Jesus the Holy Spirit employs people to carry out the various ministries. Thus, critical to the Spirit's work is the bestowal of gifts upon His loyal subjects. Psalm 68 tells how the LORD ascended Mt. Zion to his resting place. “You have ascended on high, you have received gifts.” Paul, in Ephesians 4, interprets this passage to say that Christ, the conquering king, has ascended on High, leading a host of captives--death, sin, evil, the grave. But as a magnanimous victor he divides the booty among his followers--he gave gifts to us. To some he gave this authority; to others that place of power; to others different responsibilities. Other treasures to different people. To each person different gifts and responsibilities, so that each can help him expand and govern his kingdom.
The spiritual gifts are a direct result of the Ascension, because the ascension resulted in the sending of the Spirit. The Church must have these gifts to do the work of Christ; and it must have all of them, the routine as well as the spectacular. In the body, not every part can be an eye; there must be the leg, and the foot, and the ear. But all one body. So to in the Church, the mystical “body” of Christ. Christ's program cannot thrive without the power of the Spirit enabling the people of God to participate in his kingdom, all of the members using their gifts in the process.
The lesson here is simple: We must live by the power of the Holy Spirit. Just before Jesus ascended to heaven he announced that his followers would receive power, so that they might be his witnesses (Acts 1). The ENABLEMENT comes from the risen Christ through the Holy Spirit. Paul in Ephesians says that that power is like his own mighty strength. It is so important to emphasize the power of the Holy Spirit today--but in line with the purpose of the ministry of the Holy Spirit. It is not power for power’s sake. The focus must go beyond the Spirit to the exalted Christ. He must have the pre-eminence (Col. 1:18). And the work of the Spirit is often not seen, but gradually changing lives and bringing them into conformity with the living Christ.
To live by the power of the Holy Spirit we must be rightly related to the Spirit. That is what it means to be “spiritual.” To do this we must yield ourselves to him (make that total commitment), be obedient to his Word (make every effort to live by the Word), and be controlled by the Spirit (make spiritual perception the means by which we live out our lives). And the promise is that God's Spirit will bear fruit in our lives--the fruit of the Spirit. Then he will use us mightily in our Lord's kingdom, in whatever capacity he has given to us.
Acts 1:11 records the words of the angels that this same Jesus whom they saw go up into heaven will so come in like manner as they have seen him go up (Zech. 14). It will be an actual return of Christ into space and time; but, of course, it will be more glorious. He will come in the clouds of glory; and we who remain will ascend, along with those who are raised from the dead, all changed, to be with the Lord.
Why is He coming back? Scripture offers several reasons: (1) He will raise the dead, some to honor, and some to dishonor. Just as his resurrection was part of his ascension, so shall be that of the dead in Christ. He will not abandon their bodies to this world. The work of redemption is not complete yet. (2) He will come to receive the homage. Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is the Lord God of the universe (Phil. 2). They shall look on him whom they have pierced (Zech. 12). Kings will shut their mouths (Isa. 52, 53). (3) He will come to judge, putting down all evil and all enemies. All judgment is given over to the Son of Man (John 5). (4) He will renovate his creation, establish universal peace and righteousness, remove the curse, and fulfill all his promises (Isa. 11). When he completes his restorative work and demonstrates what God had intended, then he will deliver the kingdom up to the Father, and he will resume his place in the triune Godhead, that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15).
But the ascension prepares for the second coming in glory. It will be in answer to the prayers of the ages: “Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus!” Or, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as in heaven.” He will not abandon this world to chaos.
And here is our HOPE. The point here is that we must live in the expectation of his coming in glory. How differently we would live, how differently we would serve, if we lived with this hope as a daily reality. For, the apostle says, those who have this hope, purify themselves.
So in his ascension, Jesus went home; and that is our home. He finished the redemptive work; and we have confidence in his blood. He sat down in the place of authority; and we have been commissioned to represent him. He sent the Spirit; and we have been enabled to do his work. And he will come again; and we look in hope for that glorious time.
The Ascension declares for all time that Jesus is the eternal Son of God and perfected and glorified man. The event was not an after-thought or an adjustment by God. It was part of the eternal plan of God that was established before creation. God determined to create human beings, enable them to triumph over evil, and to exalt them to glory. This is the glory of Christianity, that in Christ Jesus we have access into the heavenlies, now by faith, but in the future in reality. What a glorious faith! Because he ascended, so shall we; we shall stand in the presence of God, complete and perfect.