Learn What You believe, the complete set

Chapter I – Believe in God

Our world is moving towards unprecedented political, economic, and spiritual crisis.  Rapidly.  History suggests that during crisis and upheaval religious faith is stress-tested, and when, at least for the Christian faith, it has shown most brightly through the murk of evil.  Since 315 A.D., when Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, Christianity has been main-stream Western culture.  Between then and now, Western Christianity has endured few true stress-tests – and never in North America.  That is changing as our world is being pulled into the whirlpool of crisis.

Just in my own life time Christians in the United States have accepted the notion that it is wrong to talk about their religious views in the public arena – well, if not wrong, then at least in very poor taste.  In our public school systems, we have gone from the occasional outrage of a child being censored for expressing their faith, to commonplace reports of Christian students being denied having Bibles, praying on school property, or flunking for challenging evolution on the basis of faith; American Christians have come to expect those stories, and probably wonder how the children’s parents missed the email that taking Jesus to school results in rough sledding (although to be fair, that hasn’t permeated yet into the rural school districts of “fly-over” states).

Here’s the situation: in the non-western parts of this world, persecution of Christians is the rule; in Western countries, even the United States, it is already more difficult to stand up for Jesus than it was twenty, fifteen, or even five years ago.  As crisis deepens, it isn’t very likely that boldly living for Him will become easier – history suggests it will become much harder.  That’s why it is essential for followers of Jesus to begin now to know what they believe.  If someone sneeringly insults you because of your Christian beliefs, will you know what it is you are insulted for?  Or if one day it is necessary to draw a line in the sand between what you believe and what you are being told to ignore, will you know where the line is to be drawn?

Tens of thousands of Christians are at least familiar with one of the oldest and best summaries of the essential Christian beliefs – the Apostles’ Creed.  This creed had its beginnings in the days of the early church, the 200’s A.D.  In those days being a Christian could be tough.  Becoming a Christian and joining a church was not a casual thing.  Before being baptized as a new Christian, you might go through a couple of years of teaching and examination; the pastor or bishop wanted to be sure that you were truly committed.  And at your baptism, you would recite a creed, a statement, that summarized the faith that you had been learning, and which you were about to commit yourself to.  That was the earliest beginnings of the Apostles’ Creed, as a summary of basic Christian teaching from the Bible and the Apostles, which was used to instruct new believers.  As an official Creed it was formalized almost 600 years later at the end of the 800’s.  This Creed was never meant to be an in-depth explanation of Christian belief, just a basic outline to learn, know, and to teach with.  So let’s get with the teaching, learning, and knowing!

As an outline, the Creed divides into three parts – yes, three!  The notorious three point sermon aside, three means Trinity – God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Sure, the Spirit only gets an honorable mention in the third part – the notorious catch all section – but that’s good enough for a balanced outline!  We will follow that outline in explaining the Creed, first looking at God the Father, then examining God the Son, and finally going into God the Spirit and all the other bits and pieces.

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

Believe

When saying the Creed out loud in worship, it is traditional to stand.  To say “this is what I believe” with other people is not a simple thing – it’s a big deal, much more than whispering, “Here are some ideas I intellectually buy into.”  Christian singer/song-writer Rich Mullins put it this way in the refrain of his song “Creed”:

and I believe that what I believe is what makes me what I am;

I did not make it, no it is making me…”

In other words, your belief in God and how He has acted in the past and continues to act in the present is what defines who you are; it is what aligns every fiber of your being.  The Presbyterian author Albert Winn suggests that believing is passionate, it contains zeal; it contains power, it is a struggle, it coexists with unbelief.  He has written, “Real believing is always in spite of.  We do not say, ‘of course I believe.’  We say, ‘I dare to believe in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.’”  When you recite this creed you declare that this is what you cling to no matter what.

This solemn oath of trust in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is what the martyrs of the early church died for.  It is what Christians are dying for, being beaten for, arrested, and turned out of their homes for, right now today, in places like Iran, Egypt, China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Kenya, Burma, and Indonesia (you can learn more at persecution.com).  Proclaiming “I believe …” is not a casual thing at all.  It has power.  It draws a line in the sand between you and the world at large.  The world will respond with hostility because you have just sided against it (look at Jesus’ words in John 15:18-16:4 and 17 about the tension between his followers and the world).  This why Christians stand when they recite the Apostles’ Creed, because declaring “This is what defines us!” is to take a stand against all evil and powers in the world which defy God’s love and righteousness.

God

“I believe in God” is a simple statement that represents a very big idea – belief in God, capital G.  This is a profession of monotheism, that there is only one God, expressed in three persons.  The big deal is that if there is only one God, then that God alone is worthy of total, complete devotion and worship – nothing else, no one else can demand that kind of allegiance.  That means no political ideology however noble, no leader however gifted and promising, no virtue however empowering, nothing, is worthy of owning the first and primary place in your life.  Christians believe that this God is alone God, the supreme, ultimate Other; and therefore is alone worthy of unwavering devotion.  The Scots Confession of 1560 expresses the idea with these ringing words:

We confess and acknowledge one God alone, to whom alone we must cleave, whom alone we must serve, whom only we must worship, and in whom alone we put our trust. (emphasis added)

That’s what it means to confess, “I believe in God.”

Chapter II – Father Almighty, Creator

the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.

Father

The Creed describes God the One and Only with a startling word – Father.  Please! Don’t get bogged down with modern indignations about inclusive versus patristic language, because that would miss the marvelous point here.  The point is, God is personal – loving, relational, knowable!  This capital G God is not remote, disinterested, or coldly unaware of you.

The description of God as the Father makes two claims: first, that God is the Father of Jesus Christ, and second, that God is our Father.  The claim that God is the Father of Jesus doesn’t imply that Christians believe Him to be male.  Rather, it expresses the idea that Jesus and God had an intimate, organic, and essential relationship.  Likewise, if you believe God to be your Father, you believe that you have a deep, growing, foundational relationship with God as well.  That is an idea worth spending some time thinking about!

Almighty

Not only is God loving and relational, God is also all powerful.  To believe that God is almighty means more than God has the power to do whatever God wants.  What we really believe is that God rules over everything; Christian and not-Christians, every country, all creatures in the ocean, on land, and in the air, this entire planet, solar system, and anything there is beyond. God rules it all in macrocosm as well as microcosm.  One of the earliest manuals for Christian education during the Reformation states that it is by God’s almighty power that God “rules in such a way that leaves and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and unfruitful years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, and everything else, comes to us not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.”[1]

If God were only some benevolent, grandfatherly figure in Heaven, wishing you well, but of limited power, God might desire to answer your prayer, but be unable.  If God were almighty, but not fatherly, God might have the ability to answer your prayer, but be unwilling.  But you believe that God the Father is almighty!  Not only does he will to answer you, God is able to “accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.”[2]  This counterpoint formed by God’s Fatherly love and almighty essence means you are able to be patient during tough times, grateful is good times, trusting “[your] God and Father for the future, assured that no creature shall separate [you] from his love, since all creatures are so completely in his hand that without his will they cannot even move.”[3]  What more do you need to sleep well tonight?

Creator

Christians believe that God is maker of Heaven and earth.  This doesn’t mean that Jesus people ignorantly cling to a hopelessly outmoded view of the cosmos from the ancient world.  It means we believe that everything was created by God.  We use a very simple rule of thumb – if it ain’t God, then God created it.  That should about cover it, but just in case, the Nicene Creed clarifies that everything visible and invisible was created by God.  Which brings us full circle – if God alone is creator, and if everything else is creation, then God the Father almighty alone is to be worshiped.

But, we have also just affirmed that God is almighty Creator, and loving, relational God the Father.  Therefore, this simple statement implies that God’s act of creation is an intentional act of love.  Creation was not an accident when God sneezed and divine matter flew into the chaos and spontaneously brought order.  Nor was it the act of a dispassionate divine being who set things in motion then sat back to observe what might happen.  To claim God the Father almighty is Creator affirms that not only is creation good, because God intentionally created it, but also that God wants to be fundamentally involved in every minor detail of what goes on.

What you believe about God determines how you interpret and respond to the circumstances which every day contains.  According to the Heidelberg Catechism, when you believe in God the Father almighty, maker of Heaven and earth, it means:

“I trust I him so completely that I have no doubt that he will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul.  Moreover, whatever evil [comes my way] in this troubled life he will turn to my good, for he is able to do it, being almighty God, and is determined to do it, being a faithful father.”[4]

Who knew so much could be packed into this one little sentence, I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of Heaven and earth?  If you haven’t memorized the Apostles’ Creed yet, start with this first line.  Spend time mulling it over, thinking it through, holding it up once in awhile to moments in life; Come to know God as your almighty Father, your Creator.


[1] The Heidelberg Catechism, question 27.

[2] Ephesians 3:20; NLT.

[3] The Heidelberg Catechism, question 28.

[4] The Heidelberg Confession, question 26.

Chapter III – Christ, Son, Born, Lord

A friend of my wife’s is vegetarian.  She told us the story once of when she invited friends over to grill, carnivores and vegetores alike.  As he was leaving, one of her carnivorous friends thanked her for providing some real beef on the grill – it was one of the best hamburgers he’d ever had.  The thing was, all she had was the usual vegetarian mushroom/soy/whatever meat “substitute”.  Rather than accepting her point that “you can’t tell the difference”, I preferred to assume that her carnivore guests had very low standards for hamburgers.  After living almost twenty years in cow country, I can claim confidently that the key ingredient to a great burger is not what you pile on top; the essential ingredient is a nice juicy, grilled to perfection patty of ground cow.  Without that, what you have might taste alright, but what you have is not a hamburger, because you don’t have the primary ingredient.

The meat of the Apostles’ Creed – the essential ingredient that makes the Creed the hefty spiritual sandwich that it is – begins with these words “I believe in Jesus Christ…”  Believing in Jesus is the core, the heart of the Christian faith.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary …

Anointed

Christians believe that Jesus is the Christ, not that he was born to Joseph and Mary Christ.  It is a title that comes from a Greek word, christos, which reflects a Hebrew word translated as messiah.  Messiah and Christ are interchangeable because they both mean “anointed”;  Put another way, this title is The Anointed One – God’s Anointed One.

In the Old Testament, God would occasionally tell his prophets to anoint a particular person with olive oil to serve as king.  This signified that person as set apart, or ordained, by God for leadership of God’s people.  To believe Jesus to be God’s Anointed One is to believe that Jesus was ordained, set apart, by God to be the leader of God’s kingdom.  Jesus, if you remember the gospel stories (Matthew 3, Mark 1;1-11, Luke 3:21-22, John 1:29-34), was baptized not with olive oil, but the Holy Spirit, right there in the Jordan river by John the Baptist.

As God’s Anointed One, Jesus leads his people as Prophet (teacher), High Priest, and Eternal King[1]:

  • He is our Prophet because Jesus reveals completely everything about God’s will and purpose for fixing the Garden of Eden disaster (in other words, salvation) that had not been made clear before.
  • Jesus is our only High Priest because not only did he sacrifice his own body as the sin sacrifice for all time, but he now performs the priestly task of standing before God on behalf of his people.
  • Finally, Jesus was anointed as our Eternal King because he rules – governs – leads – God’s people as they read and hear the Scriptures, and through his Spirit that lives inside every believer (the Holy Spirit); he protects us against everything that is at war with God’s kingdom, and he provides everything we need to flourish in this freedom-from-sin life he has won for us.

Only Son, born of Virgin Mary

God’s only Son and born of the Virgin Mary are related ideas.

First, aren’t we all supposed to be God’s children, so how can Jesus be God’s only kid?  Well, this is the flip side of saying that God Almighty is Father of Jesus the Messiah.  It recognizes that Jesus’ relationship with God is unique – that uniqueness is spelled out in Philippians 2:6-9 (also see John 1:1-18):

Though he was God,

He did not think of equality with God

As something to cling to.

Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;

He took the humble position of a slave

And was born as a human being

When he appeared in human form,

He humbled himself in obedience to God

And died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of

Highest honor

And gave him the name above all other names …

Jesus the Christ is uniquely God’s Son because he is fully God, fully human; he was the Divine Agent of Creation (John 1:3); his sacrificial obedience led to the highest honor, his name above any other thing in the created order –  Jesus is to be worshiped.  His relationship with God is unique, essential to his person, a relationship that is integral to God’s triune nature.

For a lot of Protestant Christians, the Virgin Birth is not as important as it was to the early Church.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t significant any more, however.  As you remember from the Christmas story (Matthew 1:18, Luke 1:35), the Holy Spirit was Jesus’, “birth” Dad (well, It wouldn’t be strictly accurate to call the Spirit his “biological” father).  “Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary” is a shorthand summary of this part of the Christmas story which forms the basis for the verses in Philippians 2.  This is the great mystery of the Incarnation: that Jesus, God’s Only Son, The Anointed, was completely God, and also completely human.  It also means that Jesus was God’s Only Anointed from the very beginning; he wasn’t a supremely exceptional human being who caught God’s attention and “Only Son, The Anointed” bestowed on him by God like some award for excellence.  Believing Jesus was fully God and fully human has been a stumbling point for people down through the ages, because it is difficult to keep in balance.  Yet, if Jesus was not really one or the other then the entire message of Good News gets thrown off track, one direction or another.  Take some time to think on that for yourself to discover what it might mean if Jesus were only God, or only human.

“Only Son”, and “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary” affirm the Incarnation of Jesus from two different directions, the eternal Divine direction, and the helpless human direction.

Lord

The words “Jesus is Lord” are so familiar and time worn that most Christians have lost the significance of the words.  In fact, the concept of Lordship is completely foreign to North American culture.  We have no experience with it, or any valid parallel.  Let’s face it – lordship was a basic cultural structure of the human race until Americans consciously chose to invent a completely different way to build culture.

In the New Testament the title “Lord” is part of Jesus’ elevation by God to “the place of highest honor “.  Let’s go back to Philippians 2 for a moment where Paul says

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of

highest honor

and gave him the name above all other names,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.[2]

In Philippians Jesus is Lord because his name is above every name; his lordship will be confessed by everyone.  So in the New Testament, the title “Lord” is applied to Jesus in the highest sense possible, that he is God, the God of Israel.  To quote a theologian, the writers of the New Testament used the title “Lord” for Jesus because

…it was the most adequate term for expressing what … believers had come to understand and appreciate of Jesus’ person and achievement and his present decisive role in the outworking of God’s purpose and blessing for the universe.[3]

Most importantly however, how does one respond to such a Lord?  The only possible response to this kind of Lordship is submission (as Philippians 2:10-11 states).  This is another concept North Americans have trouble understanding.  Try it like this: to believe that Jesus is your Lord means that you are no longer “self-employed”.  The responsibility for failure or success, making all the right decisions at the right time, doesn’t rest solely on your shoulders anymore.  Rather, you are now “Jesus-employed”.  He has bought you out, he now owns the whole enchilada, and he is now the one responsible for making sure everything runs well.  To paraphrase Calvin, to claim Jesus as Lord means:

We are [the Lord’s]: let us therefore live for him and die for him.  We are [the Lord’s]: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions.   We are [the Lord’s]: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only [permissible] goal.[4]

That is the goal – not merely to say “I believe in Jesus as my Lord” – but in the mess of every day’s living to strive toward Jesus, the Anointed-Fully-God-Fully-Human, to live for him more, to let his wisdom and will rule your actions more.  Yes, you believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Only Son, our Lord, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary; so how is that “making you” today?


[1] The Heidelberg Catechism, question 31.

[2] Philippians 2:9-11, NLT.  These words are arranged in the form of verse because most modern scholars believe that Paul was quoting a contemporary hymn.

[3] F.F. Bruce, Paul:Apostle of the Heart Set Free; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977, p. 117.

[4] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, The Westminster Press, 1960, p. 690.

Chapter IV – Suffered, Crucified, Risen

More than ever the Apostles’ Creed is important because Jesus-followers need to get a firm grip on what they believe.  So many church people are content to casually believe in Jesus, go to church when they’re in town, and maybe read the Bible occasionally.  It’s good for them and it doesn’t cost anything .  Well, it didn’t used to cost you anything to take luggage with you on the airplane either.  But we are heading towards a time when admitting that you believe in Jesus and go to church (or that you own a Bible) is going to cost something – maybe a lot.  Some readers may already be experiencing that in their work place or at school.  Even if out-in-the-open persecution of Christians in the Western world never happens, you will need your faith more than ever; life will be severely tested in so many ways that casual belief won’t get it done.  So, “get a grip” on your faith while there’s time!

…suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell.  On the third day he rose again;

Suffered/Crucified

Lots of big fancy theological words can get piled up on this one: atonement, propitiation, redemption, justification.  This little chain of historical events carries a lot of freight.  Put simply, Christians believe that every human’s rebellion against God (sin) brings with it the verdict of “guilty”, and the sentence of death.  But God the Almighty Father sent his Only Son our Lord to rescue people by standing in for us to receive the judgment and punishment from God that we deserved for our rebellion.

The fact that Jesus was condemned before Pilate is more than a historical detail – Jesus stood before Pilate accused as a guilty evil-doer.  To rescue us he allowed himself to be condemned by a mortal judge, and sentenced to death.  But the gospel accounts of Jesus display his “shining innocence”.  They show clearly that he had no guilt and evil of his own; he was punished for the evil lodged in our hearts, poisoning our own lives and the lives of others, in ways petty and monstrous.

Crucified, dead and buried seems to be a triple redundancy to state emphatically that Jesus was really, really dead.  But there is significance in the manner of his execution.  The cross was a sign of being cursed.  It carried, of course, a heavy stigma from a human point of view – what would be your first reaction to hear that someone you knew ended up in the electric chair?  Kinda casts some tarnish on your opinion of them (or however tarnish ends up on someone) doesn’t it?  But death on a cross also carried the curse of God’s law (see Galatians 3:13).  To believe that Jesus was crucified means you believe that the entire curse of God lay on you because of your rebellion against God (sin), and falling short of God’s design for you – But!  That curse was lifted off of you, and transferred to Jesus.

Even more, Jesus abandoned himself completely over to the power of death – the curse of sin – “he was dead and buried.”  Death is the power that puts the chains on the human experience, and holds us captive.  Jesus surrendered himself to death to deliver us from it.  “…because [Jesus] suffered death for us, he is now crowned with glory and honor.  Yes, by God’s grace, Jesus tasted death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9).

Hell

“He descended into Hell”.  I know what you’re thinking: “Okay, what does that mean exactly, where does the idea even come from, and do I really have to believe that or can I just mumble that part?

John Calvin said, “If it is left out, much of the benefit of Christ’s death will be lost.”  Yes, he really said that.  Admittedly, the Biblical data is slight and indirect, but it is found in Acts 2:31, Ephesians 4:9, and possibly I Peter 3:18-20.  The idea that Jesus descended into Hell pushes the envelope on the necessity of Jesus surrendering himself to the power of death.  What Christians believe that Jesus suffered the pain and torment of death to rescue us – body and soul.  Jesus not only died, but also suffered Hell in order to experience the terrible torments of God’s judgment after death.  When Jesus suffered in your place, he went the full distance.  He suffered the full extent of God’s judgment.  To believe this is to believe, as Calvin states, “…in death we may now not fear those things which our Prince has swallowed up.”  Or as Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15:54, “Death is swallowed up in victory.”[1]  If you believe Jesus suffered the full extent of death, you believe that both physical and eternal death have been consumed by your Lord.

Resurrection

Christians believe something that stands the “real world” on its head: Jesus was physically raised from the dead.  Long time church people hardly think about it.  Easter is just the high point on the church’s spring calendar.  We forget how foundational the resurrection is to Christianity and how profoundly it blows “the-way-things-are-supposed-to-work” right out the window.  Paul was very emphatic with the Corinthian Christians that without Jesus’ resurrection Christianity is a joke:

But tell me this—since we preach that Christ rose from the dead, why are some of you saying there will be no resurrection of the dead? For if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless.  And we apostles would all be lying about God—for we have said that God raised Christ from the grave. But that can’t be true if there is no resurrection of the dead. And if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world.[2]

Spend time thinking through who put Jesus in the position of being condemned to death, and how they put him there.  The phrases “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried” carry with them the overtones of our world’s hard reality, where lies, corruption, manipulation, misuse of political power and a host of other manifestations of evil are the way it works.  If Jesus rotted in the grave, then all of that evil would have won; Psalm 2 would end at verse three – the powers of earth succeed in their plot to break their chains and free themselves “from slavery to God.”  But God changed the rules, upset the apple cart, turned the tables, re-wrote the book; evil appeared to have gained the upper hand, only to have its scheme transformed into fatal defeat on Easter morning.  Give that careful consideration.

Not only did God’s goodness triumph once for all over evil, but in Jesus’ resurrection love triumphed over hatred.

…the attitude of those who procured [Jesus’] crucifixion was an almost virulent hatred, so bitter that in the end it was capable of ascribing the loveliness and graciousness of his life to the power of the devil.  If there had been no resurrection, it would have meant that the hatred of man in the end conquered the love of God.  The Resurrection is the triumph of love over all that hatred could do … The Resurrection is the final proof that love is stronger than hate.[3]

Suffered, crucified, risen – three words that form the core of God’s loving hope for this world.  Look for how they intersect with your life today.

[1] Isaiah 25:8

[2] I Corinthians 15:12-19, Tyndale House Publishers: Holy Bible : New Living Translation. 2nd ed. Wheaton, Ill. : Tyndale House Publishers, 2004.

[3] William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, The Daily Study Bible Series, Revised Edition, Westminster John Knox Press,1975, p. 147, 148.

Chapter V – Ascension, Judgment

The Apostles’ Creed might quickly sail across the deep ocean of biblical theology, but its affirmations about Jesus provide an amazingly in-depth map of what Christians refer to as “Salvation”.  The definition of salvation held by most church pew-sitters, that salvation means “my sins are forgiven, and I get to go to Heaven”, isn’t wrong, merely incomplete.  A fuller understanding is that “Salvation” is Christmas (the Incarnation, see Part III), + Good Friday (Jesus’ Crucifixion (see part IV), + Easter (see Part IV), + Jesus’ Ascension (which results in Pentecost).  If salvation is only “My sins are forgiven and I get to go to Heaven”, then the payoff, so to speak, isn’t until after physical death.  Yet in the Bible, this rescue accomplished in and through Jesus is not only future tense, it is also present tense; salvation is both already and not yet.  Think of it as roughly like the Normandy Invasion of World War II.  On D-Day +1 were the allies in control of Europe and the Nazis defeated?  No, and at the same time, yes; the allies had a long way to go before they actually had control of Europe, but they had broken into enemy territory, and the Nazis regime was doomed, the Allies had won.  What went on for the next year was a very painful, nasty, costly, drawn-out mopping up – but the outcome of the war had been won on the beaches of Normandy.  In that way, allied victory was both already, and not yet.

Similarly, to pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven”, is not only looking to a distant event in the future, it is also a right-now-today reality.  God’s kingdom has invaded enemy territory; it is present right now, even though God’s authority is still being contested.  Therefore, salvation is something that should intersect with your daily, hourly efforts to following Jesus.  As we look at Jesus’ Ascension and coming Judgment, we are looking at the Already, and the Not Yet.

he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

Ascension/at the Right Hand

Jesus’ Ascension is much more significant than the transition event from the gospels to the book of Acts!  The New Testament says that Christians are united with Jesus in his death and in his resurrection, therefore sharing in his victory over sin and the resulting new life (see for example Romans 6:1-11).  The New Testament also says that in a similar way, his followers are united with him in his ascension to God’s right hand, which is the foundation of their every day here-and-now experience of salvation.

Remember that Jesus’ resurrection was the beginning of his exaltation; because he gave up his heavenly glory, became one of us, and obeyed God all the way to dying on a cross:

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor

and gave him the name above all other names,

 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth

 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.[1]

That was the beginning of his glory, but Jesus’ rule began after he ascended!  1 Corinthians 15:24-28 talks about Jesus’ rule of G’s Kingdom until all of G’s enemies are defeated.  Mark 16.19 says, “He was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God.”  In other words, Jesus ascended to become God the Father’s “right hand man” – the King’s second in command, the One who runs the kingdom.

Just as we are united with Jesus in cross and resurrection, we are also united in his ascension.  His rule is for our benefit!  The power for strength, and the spiritual resources that enable you to follow and to serve in Jesus’ footsteps, flow from Jesus’ throne.  And, Jesus’ rule is the guarantee that hell has been defeated!  We’re merely in a very painful, nasty, costly, drawn-out mopping up.

Secondly, Jesus’ ascension to the place of ruling God’s kingdom has given us access to God’s kingdom. John Calvin suggests that by ascending to heaven, Jesus “has opened up the access to the heavenly kingdom, which Adam had shut.”  If it’s true that we were united with Jesus on the cross, and his resurrection from the dead, and also with his ascension, then, Calvin says, “We are, in a manner, now seated in heavenly places, not entertaining a mere hope of heaven, but possessing it in [Jesus]”.  That is part of the “already”!  We are legal immigrants to the heavenly kingdom!  We don’t merely hope that one day we might become naturalized; we posses our citizenship right now.

But even more importantly, Hebrews tells us that with access to the heavenly kingdom comes access to the throne of grace, “let us boldly draw near to the throne of grace” (4:16).  You don’t have to tip toe into God’s presence; you aren’t granted just a single audience w/ God if you are fortunate.  You follow Jesus boldly, confidently into God’s throne room, to find the help you need, when you need it.  The writer of Hebrews deliberately is contrasting the ‘throne of grace’ Jesus, our high priest, gives us access to with the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament.  This commentator puts it better than I:

… the common people were not permitted to enter the holy precincts of the tabernacle and the temple, and the priests got only as far as the veil.   The high priest alone went beyond the veil, and only on the Day of Atonement.

But every believer in Christ is invited, and is even encouraged, to “come boldly unto the throne of grace”! What a great throne it is because our Great High Priest is ministering there.  [Jesus] is ministering mercy and grace to those who come for help. Mercy means that God does not give us what we do deserve; grace means that He gives us what we do not deserve.   

No Old Testament high priest could minister mercy and grace in quite the same way.  When an Israelite was tempted, he could not easily run to the high priest for help; and he certainly could not enter the holy of holies for God’s help.  But as believers in Jesus Christ, we can run to our High Priest at any time, in any circumstance, and find the help that we need.

That is all possible because of the little obscure event in Acts when Jesus disappeared into the clouds.  Jesus’ ascension means we can approach the very throne of God; not to face judgment, but to get help, to receive not only mercy, but grace!

Let that truth soak in, because it should radically change how you live and how you respond to the twists and turns of everyday living.

But how does Jesus help us?  What form does his power and assistance take?

He made it very clear to the disciples in John 16:

Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you…13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.[2] (Emphasis added)

If the Resurrected Jesus stayed here to direct and guide things, he couldn’t be with you on a daily basis.  He left so that he could send the Holy Spirit.  Therefore, Jesus’ ascension was so crucial to everything you take for granted in the Christian life.  Because he left to be with the Father, you can be confident that evil cannot prevail, because Jesus rules; you can be confident that you can approach God no matter what; that you will find grace, not just mercy.  And, that as Jesus’ follower, it is possible to live the way God wants, because Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to live with you every day.

Judgment

The Ascension and the “already” part of God’s kingdom go together, as do the Second Coming and the “not yet”.  Let’s face it.  God’s kingdom may have a beach head in our world in the present time, but things are not being done according to God’s will just like it is in Heaven.  God has always promised his people that he will intervene in history, bringing it as we know it to an end; evil will be eradicated, and God will restore all of creation to everything he originally intended for it.

To say “I believe Jesus will come to judge the living and the dead” is to claim that God will answer the ancient prayer of his people, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done” with finality, no loose ends.  But!  That has an incredibly important implication in the “Already” – because Jesus will come as God’s Judge, everyone will be held accountable for their actions.

Matthew 25 contains three parables told by Jesus about this judgment, including the parable of the goats and the sheep:

But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. 36 I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’[3]

41 “Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. 42 For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. 43 I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’[4]

It doesn’t require intense meditation and prayer over this passage to realize that Jesus says he will judge his own followers as well as the God-rebels.  But wait!  Does this suggest that it will be the deeds of his followers that will save them from the eternal fire?  Good catch.  Yes, the New Testament is clear that inheriting God’s Kingdom is a matter of faith in Jesus, not accumulating enough good works.  Paul amplifies this in I Corinthians 3:12-15:

11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one we already have—Jesus Christ.

12 Anyone who builds on that foundation may use a variety of materials—gold, silver, jewels, wood, hay, or straw. 13 But on the judgment day, fire will reveal what kind of work each builder has done. The fire will show if a person’s work has any value. 14 If the work survives, that builder will receive a reward. 15 But if the work is burned up, the builder will suffer great loss. The builder will be saved, but like someone barely escaping through a wall of flames.[5]

Or as my youth group leader summarized, you may end up “saved, but singed”.  Once you have Jesus as the foundation of your life, what you will be judge on is what you have built on that foundation.  In that sense, you will receive what you deserve (and how much more), just as the most evil person will receive what they deserve.  “I believe Jesus will come to judge the living and the dead” is a big Not Yet, but it carries with it large Already implications.


[1]Tyndale House Publishers: Holy Bible : New Living Translation. 2nd ed. Wheaton, Ill. : Tyndale House Publishers, 2004, S. Php 2:9

[2] The Holy Bible : New International Version. electronic ed. Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1996, c1984, S. Jn 16:13

[3]Tyndale House Publishers: Holy Bible : New Living Translation. 2nd ed. Wheaton, Ill. : Tyndale House Publishers, 2004, S. Mt 25:31

[4]Tyndale House Publishers: Holy Bible : New Living Translation. 2nd ed. Wheaton, Ill. : Tyndale House Publishers, 2004, S. Mt 25:41

[5]Tyndale House Publishers: Holy Bible : New Living Translation. 2nd ed. Wheaton, Ill. : Tyndale House Publishers, 2004, S. 1 Co 3:11

Chapter VI – Spirit, connected, forgiven, eternal

We all have them, we can’t seem to live without them – the places that accumulate all the things we can’t categorize and organize.  For some of us that is the top of our bedroom dresser, but for most of us it’s the drawer in the kitchen that gives us the shivers…the junk drawer.  It’s the first alternative location searched when the usual categories have turned up empty.  You know, the place full of loose batteries, masking tape, jar lids, some screw drivers, miscellaneous hardware, and other uncategorized paraphernalia.

The third and last part of the Apostles’ Creed may sound like we have opened the theological junk drawer of Christian belief.  There’s the Holy Spirit, rounding off the Creed’s Trinitarian structure, then an assortment of what appear to be miscellaneous, unrelated theological pieces.  The thing about junk drawers, however, is they are indispensible.  We tend to know exactly the sort of thing that goes in there, and what the inventory is at any given time, because we need what is in there.  That is true of the Creed’s third section too.  What we have here is indispensable to Christian faith, and the articles contained here are less random than it might seem.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

Holy Spirit

Christians believe in God in three Persons, Father, Son, and now, Holy Spirit.  While Christians believe in the Trinity, we tend to gravitate to one Person of the Trinity; Pentecostals, obviously, gravitate toward the Spirit, Presbyterians (in my opinion) tend to stress the Father, and Evangelicals, Jesus.  However, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Evangelical, or insert your own faith tradition here, don’t deny the other two Persons of the Trinity; but their particular Trinitarian lean gives each of their theological emphases distinctive flavors.  We can either suffer angst over that, or celebrate unity in the midst of diversity.  Personally, I think it means that we need each other that much more.  Rather than becoming indignant with each other’s different “flavors”, we can realize that as the Head of the Church Jesus has molded its diverse parts to make a whole.  I believe that unity found in diversity is one of his operating principles.

In Chapter V I said, “…it is possible to live the way God wants, because Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to live with you every day.”  The New Testament is very clear that the Spirit empowers and equips Jesus’ followers to live the Jesus way of life, and to serve God’s Kingdom.  One of Paul’s themes about Christian living is the tension between life lived by the sinful nature versus life lived by the Spirit (see Romans 8:1-17, and Galatians 5:16-25).  The key to living the Christian life is the Holy Spirit.  As Galatians 5:25 says,    “Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives.”[1]

Holy Catholic Church

This little phrase has confused untold numbers of Protestants; they had no idea that they were supposed to believe in the Roman Catholic Church!  While the “c” in catholic may be capitalized at times, it helps to think of it as catholic, lower case “c”.  Catholic is a word that means “universal”.

Now, if there was a group of people with serious issues about the Roman Catholic Church it was the Protestants of the 1500’s in Scotland.  Yet in their Confession of Faith they wrote, “The Kirk is catholic – that is, universal.”  In what sense did they mean the church is universal?  Because, they explained, “it includes the chosen of all ages, of all realms, nations and tongues, who have communion and society with God the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ, through the sanctification of his Spirit.”[2]  In 1561, a Swiss pastor named Heinrich Bullinger wrote, “We…call this Church catholic because it is universal, scattered through all parts of the world, and extended unto all times, and is not limited to any times or places.” (emphasis added)[3]  The Holy catholic Church includes what the old-timers called the church militant, that is, Christians currently living in this world struggling against sin and evil, as well as what they called the church triumphant, those who have overcome the trials of this world, and rejoice before the Lord.

This little three word article in the Creed carries a big idea – you are not isolated and alone!  You, and all the other believers in your congregation, are connected to all the other Christians in town or the next town over, regardless of denominational differences.  You are connected to believers in mega-churches, and tiny rural churches, ones who believe just like you along with the ones you disagree with, across the street as well as those being persecuted for belonging to the Holy catholic Church in faraway places.  You are also connected to all the people of God from the past.  They are who the writer of Hebrews meant when he wrote:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.[4]

You do not follow Jesus by yourself.  You are part of the great throng of followers here and now, and you have the crowd of faith-veterans cheering you on.  Run with single-mindedness.

Communion of Saints

The claim that you believe in the communion of saints is a logical extension of the Church’s universal nature.  It means that as believers, those of us who truly know and worship and serve the true God in Jesus, are bound together in a relationship of love.  We have an obligation to our fellow saints to serve them by building them up, taking care of them, and allowing them to look out for us.

The Jesus way of life is lived together; it is amazing how many times the words “one another” show up in the New Testament – over fifty times!  Love one another, don’t provoke one another, don’t be jealous of one another, forgive one another, submit to one another, motivate one another, encourage one another, serve one another, and one more time, love one another.

Once, in the early days of the Church, there was a movement of spiritual hermits who lived alone in the Egyptian desert.  They thought that the way to truly live as God wanted required living and worshiping in isolation.  In a relatively short time the spiritual hermit movement transformed into the monastic movement, where the holy life was lived in a community, building relationships, and worshiping together.  The reason for the transformation is quite simple; The Jesus way is lived in a habitat of mutual Christ-like love and service – a communion of saints.

Forgiveness

Forgiveness of sins is certainly not a random idea tossed into the final part of the Creed.  It is central to what it means to be a Jesus follower.

The human reality is that to one degree or another, each of us is inclined to thumb our nose at God, insisting that we have the right to be left alone to live to the best of our abilities, free to define for ourselves what is good and right.  I think that is the core of what the New Testament calls our “sinful nature”, which is the motivator for our sinful behavior.  It is both the attitude and the resulting actions that separate us from God.  Through Jesus’ death, God took care of the attitude and deeds of sin that separate us from God.  In other words, God is willing to forgive, and reconcile each of us back to him.

Augustine wrote: “the righteousness of the saints in this world consists more in the forgiveness of sins than in perfection of virtues.”  Some American Christians have shortened Augustine’s words and created a bumper sticker: “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.”  While it could be understood as an expression of attitude, it is actually a solid statement of faith.  Along the same lines, another old-time theologian named Bernard wrote: “Not to sin is the righteousness of God; but the righteousness of man is the grace of God.”  If you believe in God’s forgiveness of sin then you believe in God’s grace, and trust in Jesus’ death alone to restore your relationship with God.  It isn’t enough to say “I believe God forgives the world at large”; you must also claim that God has forgiven you for the past, for your present, and on into the future.

Here is the flip side of believing in forgiveness of sins.  “Forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  You have probably prayed that on occasion.  If you believe in God’s forgiving grace, then you also believe that you must forgive others.  Sorry.  The New Testament is chock full of the idea that God’s forgiveness leads to your own practice of forgiveness.  For a more detailed development of forgiving others, see “God’s Kingdom Has no Debt Ceiling.”

Resurrection and Life Everlasting

The last two statements go together.  The source of this hope is affirmed earlier in the Creed, “On the third day he rose again.”  This is the defining hope of Christianity, won by, guaranteed by, and previewed by Jesus’ own resurrection.  And yes, Christians believe in the resurrection and eternal life of the physical body.  The Bible says that we are both body and soul, created by God as an integrated whole.  The notion that your true self is your immortal soul trapped temporarily in a physical body comes strictly from Greek philosophy and not from the Bible.  This eliminates the idea of incarnation, that God will put your immortal soul into a new body to live life over again, and the idea that your soul will exist forever in some kind of squishy existence without a body.

Yet!  That still leaves a dilemma about what happens after we die, and our physical body decays.  Quite honestly, the Bible is fuzzy about that.  For instance, in II Corinthians 5:1-10 Paul says that after death we will “put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing.”  However, in I Thessalonians 4:13-17 Paul describes Jesus’ return, when “God will bring back with him the believers who have died.”   It doesn’t sound as these believers have received their eternal body yet because he concludes by saying:

First, the Christians who have died will rise from their graves. 17 Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Then we will be with the Lord forever. [5]

That sounds as if Jesus brings the believers who have died in a bodiless state, and then unites them with the resurrected body with which they will live eternally.  Very simply, the bible is unclear about it all. What I believe is clear is that at Christ’s return, his followers will have physical bodies, cleansed of corruption, and now incorruptible.  These bodies will have a similar substance to our old bodies but have a substantially different quality.  Jesus actually previewed the body 2.0 that God has in store for us.  After his resurrection, Jesus had a physical body that was recognizable as himself, yet different enough that his friends didn’t always recognized him at first.  It was physical enough to touch and to eat food, yet it also was not bound by time and space.  I believe resurrected Jesus gave us a fascinating glimpse at the heavenly bodies we have for eternity.

Which leads us to the final statement of the Creed, life without end – or, eternal life. First of all, this means your resurrected body will never fail you again, it will never die again.  It won’t be at the mercy of disease and natural decline.  No more colds!  No more bad knees!  No cancer, MS, CF, or most importantly for me, A.L.S.  In that regard our heavenly bodies will be so much different that of Lazarus whom Jesus brought out of the grave, only to grow old and die again.  The Christian hope is not one of some perpetual cycle of death and rebirth!  And the eternal life Jesus brings us is much more than life merely extended to infinity; what a curse that could turn out to be.  Think of the vampire legends describing beings whose curse is becoming weary with life because it cannot end.   Instead, we believe in eternal life that emphasizes quality over duration.  We believe in life lived as God always intended it to be lived, full of joy, purpose, and love – forever, without the looming shadow of death.

God living in us, our connection with others, a restored relationship with God, and resurrected bodies living an eternal quality of life are not random ideas at all.  They are essential to what it means to follow Jesus, and that’s why they are found in the Apostles’ Creed.

I hope this examination of the Apostles’ Creed has helped you understand it better, so that you understand what you believe better.  If you haven’t yet, I would encourage you to memorize the Creed, even if you worship in a tradition that doesn’t emphasize creeds.  It is such a wonderful gift from historical Christianity because it outlines so well some of our most basic beliefs.  Now when someone asks, “What do you Christians really believe?” you will know.

The Apostles’ Creed (Ecumenical Version)

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,

suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried;

he descended into hell.

On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right

hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy catholic Church,

the communion of saints,

the forgiveness of sins,

the resurrection of the body,

and the life everlasting. Amen.


[1]Peterson, Eugene H.: The Message : The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, Colo. : NavPress, 2002, S. Ga 5:25

[2] The Scot’s Confession, Chapter XVI, The Kirk.

[3] The Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter XVII, Of the Catholic and Holy Church of God, and of the One Only Hed of the Church.

[4]Tyndale House Publishers: Holy Bible : New Living Translation. 2nd ed. Wheaton, Ill. : Tyndale House Publishers, 2004, S. Heb 12:1

[5]Tyndale House Publishers: Holy Bible : New Living Translation. 2nd ed. Wheaton, Ill. : Tyndale House Publishers, 2004, S. 1 Th 4:16

One thought on “Learn What You believe, the complete set

  1. Hi Tom. I am a middle-aged, ELCA Lutheran, following a Presbyterian upbringing and a few years spent in evangelical circles. I greatly appreciate your articulate exposition of the creed. I wonder what you would think of my position of being completely comfortable with (preferring, actually) no public displays or practice of personal religious preference in schools. I frankly don’t think that Jesus needs for anyone to “stand up” for Him (much less children), and I really worry about making children surrogate soldiers in the so-called culture wars. I would not have been particularly keen about theological “insights” my kids might have picked up from children from other traditions in school Bible studies, and would have to wonder about which particular causes they might be lifting up in prayer groups. If evolution had been an issue in our household or schools (it wasn’t) I certainly could have guided my kids to answer the questions as the subject is taught, realizing that ALL knowledge evolves and what may be today’s truth in any field may be a quaint footnote in tomorrow’s history. Are we really and truly “persecuted” here, or simply inflaming our passions creating bogeyman enemies because it’s so exciting and because feeling self-righteous is so much fun? The few places where I have experienced blatant anti-Christian sentiments were places and occasions where Christian adults could and should defend the faith as they feel appropriate (and I have done so). But I really, really, REALLY question putting kids on the forefront of our battles.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s