The Apostles’ Creed: I Believe in Jesus Humiliated

My series on the Apostles’ Creed must now move on to perhaps what might be regarded as the central section, the section on Christ’s humiliation. This part is gold:

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.

The life of the Jesus described so well in the previous line, the Son of God and one Lord, is now described up to the point of His death. So what does the Creed teach on this?

Conceived by the Holy Spirit – Before even the article on the Holy Spirit, He is mentioned as the one by whom Jesus was conceived. This shows that Jesus’ entrance into human life is a miracle, not just any miracle but a miracle performed by the same Spirit who originally created the world. This signifies that the power which brought Jesus into the world is in fact the power of divine creation itself. Jesus is the beginning of the new creation. In Jesus God has acted to begin creation over again with His only-begotten Son in place of Adam, the old son (Luke 3:38). With Jesus the human race is to be reborn.

Born of the Virgin Mary – We also see that Jesus, though conceived by the Spirit, was born of a human woman, the Virgin Mary. Jesus was not purely an interruption and replacement for the existing humanity, but in fact He was the beginning of the new creation in the midst of the old and broken one. Through Mary Jesus was born still a part of the natural human race. If it were not for this He would be some kind of alternate kind of human unrelated to us, one who could be of no use in saving our kind. Through Mary Jesus is the kinsman-redeemer, the one who shares the actual flesh and blood of His people that He may redeem their flesh and blood. This in fact makes the Catholic notion of Mary’s immaculate conception (remember this means that she was born graciously saved from original sin) entirely unnecessary. Jesus from Mary received His original contact with human corruption and sin, and like in all of His other dealings began from that very point His work in healing and sanctifying it. In this line we fine that Jesus entered humanity even in its deadness in order to raise it to new life.

Suffered under Pontius Pilate – We see that the Creed moves immediately from His birth to His sufferings of His trial. This should not be taken as an indication that nothing in between these events mattered or that Jesus’ ministry is ultimately secondary to His death. Instead, we should recognize that Jesus’ entire life before His death was bound up with His impending death, and His death was the climax of the entire life that led to it. Thus the Creed does not simply leave out Jesus’ life, but rather makes its significance inseparable from His passion. In truth, Jesus’ death belonged to His life and His life belonged to His death.

Also important is that we find Jesus’ chief accomplishment, the defining act of which the Creed is compelled to speak, to be His suffering. Suffering is to be understood as essential to what Jesus did. This is startling given the identity the Creed assigns to Jesus. He is the quite divine Son of God. Yet how can God, the eternal Creator who stands above all puny things, suffer? Who can afflict the one who is greater than all? But there is a great mystery and glory in the statement agreed on by the early church fathers that in Christ, “the Impassible suffered.” This is also startling given that Jesus is identified as Messiah. What Jew would have believed that their Messiah would be forced to suffer at the hands of a pagan ruler? These seemingly blasphemous paradoxes are at the heart of the Gospel.

We should also note that this is the second and last time any human besides Jesus is mentioned in the Creed. There are only three humans at all in the Creed: Jesus, Mary, and Pilate. Jesus is the one affirmed as the true subject, God Himself. Mary connects Jesus with the history of humanity and of Israel. And Pilate can be seen to have two major uses. On the one hand, Pilate shows that Jesus, the Jew born of Mary, suffered under pagan rules. God’s Messiah raised up to save His people died under the same hands which they had expected Him to crush. This tells us already that Jesus was suffering as a substitute and representative for Israel, for whom this punishment was outlined in the Torah. God’s covenant with Israel dictated that if they were unfaithful, they would suffer many judgments, climaxing in destruction by pagan nations and exile. This we see that Jesus suffered for them. He suffered under a pagan ruler while cut off from the people of God, accursed on a tree outside the city. In this act Jesus was truly standing in for Israel, and as a good theology of Israel’s election would then add, through Israel He stood in for the world.

The other note about Pilate is that tying Jesus’ death to this particular ruler, Jesus’ death is set in real world history. Jesus suffered at a specific time in a specific place under specific historical and political conditions. In addition to the basic apologetic thrust (which is important; we can iInvestigate the history, for this really happened), it also testifies to how God always deals with man. He deals with us in real history, using historical events. God does not work for us in the abstract or the “spiritual” (if by that we mean non-physical) realm. Time and space and matter are not irrelevant to God’s purposes but are made the context for them by grace. God comes to us in our history to bring redemption to it, and He has done this most fully and climactically in first century Palestine with one single instance of Jewish flesh.

Was crucified – Now the mode of Jesus’ execution is specified. It is crucifixion. This reinforces what was just said regarding the judgment Jesus suffered vicariously for His people. Crucifixion is the ultimate symbol of what Israel was condemned to under the Torah. Crucifixion was a Roman device and represented pagan oppression. It took place outside the city gates, symbolically cut off from the people of Israel and the presence of God. It was associated with the statement in the Torah, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” And of course it was brutal and painful in every way. Nothing would better summarize the curses of the Torah than crucifixion, and this is what Jesus suffered as the true representative of Israel, as their Messiah.

Died – The most impossible statement in all of human history. Jesus, the only-begotten Son of the Father who has life within Himself, died. The immortal God perished as a mortal man. This is at the center of the Creed, both theologically and nearly visually. Jesus died, and on this everything else hinges. Yet the meaning of this death is fleshed out by all of the other statements in the Creed. Death appears not as the significant part in and of itself, but what matters was this particular death filled to the brim with meaning and placed in rich context. Had Jesus died by tripped into a river, none of this would matter. But this death, the one described in the four Gospels in detail, is uniquely redemptive as a one-of-a-kind sacrifice.

Was buried – Finally, the death completed, Jesus was buried. This is significant for many reasons, but l will highlight one of them. In this burial we find that there is a lapse between suffering and vindication. We know that Jesus will be raised before this little story is over. But He did have to wait in the grave, and this corresponds to an ongoing theme of Scripture. God makes promises, but His people must suffer for some time before experiencing the redemption. There is a limbo period where it seems as though God is unfaithful. Jesus by all accounts seemed to be the Messiah, so why did God leave Him in the grave? Why did God let Him die at all? This questions would have been teeming in the minds of the disciples. There seemed to be a paradox, a problem involving the faithfulness of God and His salvation. Israel spent many years in such periods, so did Jesus, and so do we. We have the promise of redemption, and in fact for us even Easter has already happened, but we still live in a limbo period in which God’s salvation is not revealed and the world keeps on going in apparent meaninglessness and death. We wait for God to deliver us. But the burial of Jesus reminds us that there must be such times, and that God will not be unfaithful but in His own time will fulfill all He has promised.

He descended into hell – This statement has been a source of much confusion and debate within the Church, especially in Protestantism. Alas, in this post I have no time or room to address it. I personally read “hell” here as meaning something akin to Sheol in the Old Testament, basically “the realm of the dead.” But I will have to wait to cover this statement in another post, one which will actually be separate from this series. In the meantime, I will simply suggest that this shows the depths to which Jesus penetrated in saving us. He experienced all the deepest pains and suffering, death and alienation included, which plague humanity so that He might redeem us. Whatever “hell” means here, Jesus submitted to it for our sake, out of love, to save us from it.

The Apostles’ Creed: I Believe in Jesus Humiliated

Apostles’ Creed: I Believe in Jesus Christ

Moving on in my series on the Apostles’ Creed, we come to the second article, about the Lord Jesus Christ. I will split the second on Christ into three parts to give every statement its due. The first part:

I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord

So can we learn anything from these simple statements? As Paul might say, much in every way!

I believe in Jesus – This should surprise us, but we are quite used to it by now. Yet, immediately after declaring belief in God the Father, the Creed moves to affirming belief in someone named Jesus, a human name. Here a human being is given a priority of belief with God Himself. And unless we are to violate the Jewish creed from wich Christianity was born, that God is one and alone is to be worshipped and trusted for all things, then we must realize that even by putting Jesus here it implies that this man, Jesus, is to be included in the worship of God Almighty. Jesus must be God, in at least some way, shape, or form.

Christ – “Christ” means “anointed,” and specifically translates in Greek the Hebrew “Messiah.” Jesus is here identified as the Messiah, the anointed king God promised to Israel from the line of David. This means that Jesus is, for one, irreducibly Jewish. He is a man of Israel, indeed Himself the true Israel in whom Israel’s destiny always was determined. He cannot be separated from these roots. Everything this article will say is said about a Jew specifically. And this Jew is the true Jew, the one man for whom Israel existed from the beginning, who fulfilled Israel’s destiny in His own life. This part of the Creed announces that the God whom we worship in worshipping Jesus is no other than the God of Israel, and thus the story of His relationship with Israel in the Old Testament is inseparable from who He is for us in Jesus and how we are supposed to understand Him. This undercuts all efforts to suggest that maybe we don’t really need the Old Testament or that Jesus and God of Israel can be set against each other in any way. He is Yahweh’s anointed.

His only Son – There is a dual significance to this phrase. On the one hand, “son of God” originated as a description of Israel (Exod. 4:22, Hos. 11:1) and Israel’s king (Ps. 2:7), and this is essential to the Messianic meaning of the first part of this line. Israel became a rebellious son before God, but Jesus fulfilled their calling as the faithful Son, the true Israelite. On the other hand, in the New Testament is has become clear that the Sonship of Jesus is something greater and deeper than the sonship of Israel. Jesus is a unique Son, the Only-Begotten of the Father. He is homoousios, of one being or nature, with His Father. The Father and the Son are one and the same being. Jesus is the exact expression of the nature of God by virtue of being the Son who bears in every way His Father’s likeness and image. When we see Jesus, we see the Father. There is no God behind the back of Jesus Christ. Everything Jesus does and says is the very act and word of God Himself.

Our Lord – This one title could perhaps be called the Gospel itself. To call Jesus “Lord” is to blaspheme all rivals. This man rules the world and no one else. All other authorities exist only because He as their Lord allows them to do so. In the end they are accountable to Him, as are all men. The claim of Jesus’ Lordship has unique meaning both in its Jewish and Gentile origins. On the Jewish side, to claim the title of Lord is necessarily put one in a special relationship with God, as God alone has any true authority. If anyone is to be Lord, it must be by God’s designation. Yet in Scripture this was taken even further. The word “Lord” was used in the Old Testament to translate Yahweh, the covenant name of God, and on more than one occasion Old Testament verses which orignally referred to God as Lord are now referred to Jesus. Jesus is Lord means not only that He is the ruler and king, but that He is the God over all rulers and kings, the one God of Israel who rules the whole earth. On the Gentile side, the title “lord” was chiefly for Caesar. He considered and even worshipped as the lord of the world. To call anyone else “lord” was a challenge to him, and this was especially so for the early Christians. Unlike all others, no Caesar could force the Christians to bow to him as lord, for his only power was the tyrant’s power, death, a power to which the Christians refused to yield. Even today, Jesus remains this Lord. He stands over and against all human powers and authorities, whether American or Russian or Iranian or Chinese. They are all subject to Him and will all give an account to Him, and none of them should be able to control us (*cough* for example, by forcing us to endorse people like Trump or Hillary *cough*) when we recognize His absolute Lordship.

Apostles’ Creed: I Believe in Jesus Christ

Son of David, King of Justice

I preached yet again last night, and this is my manuscript. Due to the context, I ended up significantly compressing this sermon. What you’re reading here is much longer than what I actually preached.

I thought that, before I begin tonight, I should tell you all a little bit about myself, but not too much, because I’m just a nerdy theology student and my goal tonight is to speak about the God of Jesus Christ. But it doesn’t hurt to know a little about a messenger before you hear his message. As they said, my name is Caleb Smith. I’m 21, married to a very lovely wife over there, have one crazy kid outside the womb and one kid still inside. I go to the Baptist College of Florida like a lot of the other people at Grace Fellowship, and I’m working on a degree in Ministry Studies. I hope, by God’s will, to be able to do mission work for some time after graduation, and then maybe to pastor somewhere and even perhaps pursue further education. But who knows what will actually happen? God rarely works in expected ways.

Anyway, Grace has been a kind enough place to let me do some preaching, and I actually just preached there last night. I only learned I would be preaching here about two weeks ago, so I was originally going to simply preach the same sermon with some modifications. But in truth it didn’t seem like the right one. I felt God leading me elsewhere. What I eventually came to was Isaiah 11:1-10. It seems to speak relevantly to the concerns which had been building up in my heart in relation to preaching here tonight, so I dug in and found the gold of God’s promise. So, without any further ado, I’ll get into the text.

Out of the stump of David’s family will grow a shoot—yes, a new Branch bearing fruit from the old root.
And the Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
He will delight in obeying the Lord. He will not judge by appearance nor make a decision based on hearsay.
He will give justice to the poor and make fair decisions for the exploited. The earth will shake at the force of his word, and one breath from his mouth will destroy the wicked.
He will wear righteousness like a belt and truth like an undergarment.
In that day the wolf and the lamb will live together; the leopard will lie down with the baby goat. The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion, and a little child will lead them all.
The cow will graze near the bear. The cub and the calf will lie down together. The lion will eat hay like a cow.
The baby will play safely near the hole of a cobra. Yes, a little child will put its hand in a nest of deadly snakes without harm.
Nothing will hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for as the waters fill the sea, so the earth will be filled with people who know the Lord.
In that day the heir to David’s throne will be a banner of salvation to all the world. The nations will rally to him, and the land where he lives will be a glorious place.

This is an amazing passage in my opinion, but to understand it we need to go back a bit into its context in Isaiah. Isaiah was a prophet who was called by God to prophesy to Israel around the time that they would go into Exile, the ultimate punishment God had promised Israel in the Torah, the law given to Moses. His first job was to call Israel out for their sins and tell them to repent, to stop sinning and turn back to God, in order to avoid being judged and exiled.

But what was Israel doing wrong? Why did they deserve to be judged like this? The very first chapter of Isaiah gives God’s case against them. You guys don’t have to turn there if you don’t want to, but I’m not going to read it all, I’m just going to mention some highlights. Isaiah 1 shows us that Israel had gotten messed up. According to verse 17, the orphans, the widows, all of the people who were able to do the least for themselves were being oppressed and taken advantage of. This would be hard enough in our day, but in theirs especially widows and orphans had an awful time of it. In verse 21 God says that what used to be a faithful people had become full of murderers. Violence and killings were everywhere. We know what that’s like today, though it does seem like it was even worse there.

And this corruption filled Israel everywhere. Verse 23 adds that their political leaders, their judges, and their priests were all corrupt. They were more interested in money and power than justice. They took bribes to hurt the innocent and protect the guilty. They got rich for themselves at the expense of everyone else. The leaders hoarded gold, and they stacked up on military power even, according to Isa. 2:7, but the average people and the poor didn’t benefit from it at all. They got nothing, and the leaders got everything.

As if all that wasn’t bad enough, 2:8 adds that the people were all idolaters. They all worshipped other gods instead of pledging their allegiance to the true God alone, who had taken them out of Egypt and made them into a nation. They worshipped these gods because all of the false gods represented things like fertility, or power, or wealth, and they craved these things more than they wanted to be faithful to their Redeemer.

So, because of all of this evil, God was getting ready to judge Israel. Right before our text, in Isaiah 10, God says that this will be done through Assyria. Throughout the Old Testament we see God judging through human nations, kind of like they are wild dogs He keeps on a leash until they are needed. Israel needed to be roughed up at this point for their disobedience, so God let the Assyrians conquer them.

But the other problem is that Assyria was just as evil, if not worse, than Israel. In Isaiah 10:16-17, God says:

Therefore, the Lord, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, will send a plague among Assyria’s proud troops, and a flaming fire will consume its glory. The Lord, the Light of Israel, will be a fire; the Holy One will be a flame. He will devour the thorns and briers with fire, burning up the enemy in a single night.

Assyria had to be judged, too. And once they are judged, God will be ready to restore Israel. He made a promise to Abraham to bless His descendants, and that means He will be faithful and restore Israel. He made a promise to David to put his sons on the throne, and that means Israel will have a throne. That is where our text, Isaiah 11, comes in. God revealed to Isaiah that one da, a “Branch” will come from the old root and stump of David’s family. A new king is coming.

God also promised to fill this king with His Spirit. God’s Spirit, throughout Israel’s history, was given to prophets and kings and leaders to accomplish important tasks for God’s plan. And unlike any of these people before, God says that this His Spirit will “rest on” this king. The Spirit will stay on Him, not just temporarily like everyone before. This Spirit, God’s Spirit, is the Spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and the fear of God. This means the king will be totally wise, he will understand what he needs to understand, he will learn from God how to rule rightly, he will be strong enough to work everything out, he will know what is going on, and he will always submit to God.

All of these great traits, all of this strength and brilliance, will be how God brings justice back to the land. He won’t “judge by appearance nor make a decision based on hearsay.” Now, I don’t know how the justice system actually looked like in ancient Israel, but today that would mean he would be fair, he wouldn’t give in to polarized partisanship, and he wouldn’t let dumb posts on Facebook, trending tweets, bribery, or biased news sources distort his judgment. He will be totally fair and just and right.
Verse 4 tells us that this king will use these qualities to fix the rigged and broken systems. He will give justice to the poor, and he will make fair decisions in his court cases. Under this king’s rule, the innocent won’t be unfairly convicted, and the guilty won’t get away with their crimes. He will take the corrupt and unjust people down from their positions with his power. As the verse says, “one breath from his mouth will destroy the wicked.”

And he’ll do more than that. He’ll make Israel safe again. Israel had been living in a really dangerous situation. There were murderers within and armies without. But this prophecy talks about a totally different kind of world. Under this new king, Israel will be safe again, so ridiculously safe that even carnivorous animals will be friendly. Verses 7 and 8 say that wolves and lambs and leopards and goats will be friends. Little kids will be able to run around with them, and babies will be able to play in snakeholes. These aren’t supposed to be saying, necessarily, that the king will literally domesticate every dangerous animal. The point is to paint a picture of perfect peace, just as verse 9 says, “Nothing will hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.” Through his promised king, God will bring safety and security to Israel, ending the murders and the constant threat of foreign enemies.

In fact, the threat of foreign enemies brings us to the rest of verses 9-10, in which we find out that this king will change the whole world, not just Israel. It says that the world will be filled with people who know the Lord as much as water fills the seas. The king will be a “banner of salvation to all the world.” Apparently everyone from every nation will be blessed through the king who blesses Israel. Israel will be on top of the world, the king will be on top of Israel, God will be above this king, and everyone else will benefit from it. Israel, and through Israel the world, will be safe, just, and even great again.

So, with everything we’ve seen about the coming king, we’re forced to ask: who is this king and did he ever come? How did God fulfill this promise? Well, for Christians the answer is no surprise. We jump to Matthew 1:1 and find out straightaway that this king is Jesus Christ, Israel’s Messiah. In fact, the word Christ, which actually means Messiah, literally means “anointed,” and it refers to the anointing with oil that a king would receive. Jesus is the anointed King, anointed by the Spirit of God mentioned before at His baptism, where the Gospels say that the Spirit descended like a dove and remained on Him, just like the verse in Isaiah said.

Jesus fulfills even more of this passage. By the Spirit He was Himself filled with wisdom, and power, and knowledge, and the fear of God. He was always righteous and just. He obeyed God all the way through, even to the point of death. His whole life proved that He was filled with the same Spirit and character that Isaiah prophesied.

He also fulfilled the promises for justice for the poor and oppressed. In Israel, He healed and forgave the least of these, the poor and the marginalized and exploited. He let them back into the Temple by cleansing them from being unclean both inside and out. He gave to those in need, and He helped people who were down on their luck or otherwise messed up, whether it was their fault or not, and got them back on their feet. Actually, it might be better to say He didn’t just get them back on their feet, but He gave them new feet altogether that they could use to live new, redeemed lives. He did this all while challenging and condemning the people in charge of rigged and broken systems and institutions, like the crooked King Herod, the elite Jewish establishment, and even the Roman Emporer in a few ways. He turned the world on its head, putting the last first and the first last, because they already had things in a crooked balance.

In fact, Jesus made this theme major to His ministry. He applied another, closely related prophecy in Isaiah to Himself in Luke 4:18-19. It says:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”

But there is a legitimate question in how Jesus fulfilled some of this. After all, Israel doesn’t look like this prophecy says today. They’re not safe, and there’s still injustice, even terrorism. So what did Jesus do?

The key lies in the last bit, that the King will affect all the nations of the world. See, as we see in Ephesians 2:11-15, Israel was recreated around Jesus. Israel in its new, born again form is no longer a nation limited to a certain people or area, with Jews and Gentiles united across the world. Gentiles were once outside the covenant, but now in Christ one new people has been made. He does not rule merely a nation, but all nations. This fulfills Isaiah 11:10’s promise that the King would be a banner for the whole world.

So for this new kind of Israel, Jesus was resurrected from the dead and exalted as the Lord not just of one strip of land in the Middle East, or for one race out of all races, but of the whole world. Philippians 2:9-11 says:

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.

This means that Jesus’ kingdom is universal now, so we don’t look to the state of one nation or people to see this prophecy fulfilled. But either way, now it seems worse. The whole world certainly isn’t just and safe, is it? We have poverty. We have injustice. Bad guys still win and good guys still lose. Corrupt systems still exist. The reason for this is that Jesus has temporarily left the earth, putting that mission on pause. He ascended into heaven to give us time. What do we need time for? 2 Peter 3:9 tells us that the reason for this delay is so that people have time to repent. Jesus wants to allow time for millions, maybe billions, of people to hear of His rule and submit to Him. It is not until He returns that He will finish the mission. At that time, as Revelation 21:5 says, He will make everything new.

And this is no empty promise. Jesus’ gave us the Holy Spirit as a guarantee, and in fact His own human nature is a guarantee that He will come back to us. And when He does, He will take down all the wicked and unjust people, systems, governments, institutions, and powers. He will stop rigging and institute real, actual justice forever. The corrupt and wicked people who take advantage of others and make the world unjust and rigged will be overthrown, and those who march in behind Christ under His Lordship will inherit the world promised in Isaiah 11, where there is nothing but peace, justice, and unlimited life.

This is wonderful hope, the real hope of the world. Our hope is in the return of Jesus Christ, and there is no other hope for the world at all. And we need this hope, because our world is as broken as Israel was in its day. I know you’ve all seen the news lately. We have shootings and murders, people being killed left and right. We face threats from the outside, too, from foreign enemies. People just don’t feel safe anymore, regardless of their job, race, gender, or religion.

The same goes with the injustice problem. Our systems and institutions are messed up. They all seem rigged for rich and powerful elites instead of everyone else. Justice looks like a joke. Too many criminals get away with their crimes, or get off easy, while innocent people lose out. Everything is out of whack. Just like Israel, our leaders have loads of money and power but somehow none of this helps most people.

So we need this hope from Jesus. He is coming back to undo all of this. He will save us from the mess the world is in and recreate it in line with His own will, in the pattern of His own victorious resurrection. In fact, He has already overthrown all of these powers and problems. He defeated the death which haunts us on our newsfeeds and TVs. Because of His resurrection there will be another resurrection which overturns death around the world. He defeated the corrupt and rigged systems and powers, because those kinds of people condemned Him to death but He rose from the dead in defiance of their unjust ruling. They’ve been thrown down and mean nothing. The powers we see today are already disarmed and are guaranteed to be overthrown when Jesus returns to claim His Lordship. We wait for this day. We have hope that Jesus will return to make all things new, to make the world safe and great and just again for people of all stripes and classes. This is the only hope to live again.

But all of this isn’t to say that there is nothing for us in the present. Jesus hasn’t simply left us to nothing in the meantime while we wait for His final victory. Instead, Jesus has called forth His Church to live as a people of the age to come who still live in this present age. We who believe in Jesus and have been baptized into His Church, we are called to bring the future He has created into the present. We must model His justice and protection in our own communities.

This means we must be a haven for people who have been treated wrongly. If someone has been a victim of a rigged system or an unjust decision, we may or may not be able to fix it, but we can welcome them into a world where all people are treated rightly with the justice of Christ. The world may not be fair, but we should do all we can to make our churches places where there is true fairness.

We also must provide a haven for those who feel unsafe. In our churches, people should be free from every threat of violence or abuse, whether physical, mental, or emotional. We must instead show the kind of protecting, self-giving love that Jesus showed in laying down His life for us.

And we must be charitable. If Jesus promised justice for the poor, then we are called to do everything we can to compensate for the imbalance in an unjust society and share what we have with those who need more. Not only this, but we must help people to learn to earn an honest living for themselves, so that they don’t have to rely on the chance kindness of strangers to make it by anymore. After all, a just system isn’t just one where everyone gets enough, but where everyone gets enough and fulfills their own responsibilities.

But more than this, the Church is also given the task of proclamation. We are required to speak God’s truth and God’s judgments to the world and all of its broken systems, just like John the Baptist preached against King Herod’s wickedness. The world in all of its injustice and violence is under the judgment of God, and it is our job to tell them and to beg them to change their ways. Jesus is the true Lord, who rules over everything. He will come back to judge every nation and leader.

This means the Church ought to call the world to account for its injustice and tell them about the right way to run things. We have to tell them about how to do justice, how to promote peace, and how to best treat all of the people in the world. We may not change much, though by God’s grace we pray that we do, but we will do all that God calls us to and all that He helps us to so that the world can experience even now a taste of the great world that Jesus is going to bring about when He returns as our Lord and King.

Right now, then, it comes down to this. God has sent us a king to make the world brand new again, and His name is Jesus. He will come back, but for now we must love each other, do justice, have mercy, and walk humbly with our God, who rules the world in and as Jesus Christ. He will set all things right, and we are here now to make what we can right in honor, hope, faith, and anticipation of that day.

Son of David, King of Justice

Wait, How Is That Prophecy about Jesus?

The New Testament frequently cites Old Testament prophecy about Jesus. A quick glance, even just through Matthew, shows just how much this was emphasized. Core to the Christian faith is the belief that Jesus fulfills the prophetic word of God in the Old Testament. The ancient Nicene Creed says Jesus “suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”1

Yet another quick glance can make this whole concept confusing. If you try to peek at the Old Testament references for these prophecies, you usually don’t see what they have to do with Jesus. Take, for example, Matthew 2:15. It says:

He stayed there until Herod’s death, so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled: Out of Egypt I called My Son.

The reference for this quote is Hosea 11:1. So you go back and take a look at Hosea 11:1, and what do you find?

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son.

The verse that was cited as a prophecy about Jesus was originally quite specifically about Israel. So how does that work? Was Matthew wrong? Did he misuse Hosea 11:1 and take it out of context?

I’ve heard a lot of people respond to this basically like this: “Well, maybe the verse was mainly talking about Israel, but it was also secretly a prophecy about Jesus. Then God revealed this to Matthew in the New Testament.” You get the impression from answers like this that the Old Testament is just sprinkled with random references to Jesus, almost like inspired Easter eggs, unnoticeable until the Holy Spirit points them out.

I don’t think this is the right way to understand these prophecies. There is no Easter egg hunt, nor are hidden meanings in play, at least in most cases. What we’re missing is that the prophecies for Christ aren’t a connect-the-dots game. People assume that these prophecies are a strict progression of prediction to fulfillment, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, they’re more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff. Oh, wait, that’s Doctor Who.2

What I mean to say is that these prophecies are a lot more about major themes in the relationship, covenant, and history of God and man than they are about checkboxes for Jesus’ life. The story of God, creation, mankind, and Israel all comes together in Christ’s own life, death, and resurrection. So Jesus fulfills, as it were, all of the destinies of election. The promises to David, Moses, Jacob, Isaac, Abraham, Noah, and even Adam all reach their goals in Jesus, the only human who could, being Himself God, work out the right relationship in covenant between God and man.3

What does this mean for Old Testament prophecies about Christ? Their main point is not to make a list of criteria for the Messiah to fulfill. In fact, they can’t really be used that way. (Some people who invented statistical apologetics may be unhappy, but ah, well.) Instead, the primary links are about ongoing themes in the God/world/Israel relationship. So applying that to Hosea 11:1, it’s clear what is going on. Israel was essentially born out of Egypt, before wandering in the wilderness and finally claiming the Promised Land. Jesus now stands to reinvent Israel’s history in His own life, representing His people and undoing all of their mistakes. So He too was called out of Egypt in His youth, and before long spent 40 days in the wilderness before invading the Promised Land with the kingdom of God.4

This same idea can apply to stuff in the Psalms. For example, today I was reading Psalm 34 and ran across verse 20, which was cited in the Gospels about Jesus’ bones not being broken on the cross. Yet in context, this hardly appears to be about the coming Messiah. Here is the last paragraph5 of the psalm, which includes verse 20:

Many adversities come to the one who is righteous,
but the Lord delivers him from them all.
He protects all his bones;
not one of them is broken.
Evil brings death to the wicked,
and those who hate the righteous will be punished.
The Lord redeems the life of His servants,
and all who take refuge in Him will not be punished.

This passage is talking about how God treats His righteous followers. He protects them, saves them, and vindicates them. This ideal of a righteous servant suffering for God is prominent both in the Psalms and in the prophets, and in both cases Israel is often treated as just such a servant. God’s people suffer unjustly as they try to follow Him, but He promises to protect them and ultimately save them from all harm and give them triumph and glory over their enemies.

Jesus, as we see, becomes the ultimate embodiment of this ideal. He fulfills by Himself perfectly the role of the suffering, righteous servant present in this psalm, and in other places like Isaiah 53. The role that Israel was meant to play, Jesus performed perfectly. He lived and died as the Righteous One, the true Israel, and so God fulfilled His promises. He protected His bones from being broken, and indeed raised Him back to life in glory and honor.

I hope by now you can start to see what I’m talking about. Very few of the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus are fulfilled in a straightforward, literal detail. But that doesn’t mean they’re random or hidden. The whole story of God and His people is wrapped up in Christ and His fulfillment of all God’s purposes. If you just study the Scriptures, you can see how His story shines brightly.

Wait, How Is That Prophecy about Jesus?

Jesus the Apocalypse: The Messiah Appears

To continue my Mark Bible study (which began in this post), I’ll move on to the very first verse:

This is the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

What the Bible Says

Let’s not miss the significance of this. Mark has the simplest introduction of any of the Gospels. No genealogy (Matthew), preface (Luke), or poetic allusions to creation (John). He just says, “this is the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” By the next verse, he’ll be introducing John the Baptist. So let’s take a closer look at this first verse.

Good News – The words “good news” here come from the Greek word euaggelion, which is usually translated “gospel” and from which we get our word “evangelize.” It was primarily used in particular of politically-relevant military victories, especially if the emperor was involved. This kind of good news would be along the lines, “Good news! We’ve won the battle!” or “Good news! A new emperor has been crowned!” The theme of royal victory was most likely a common connotation. Keep that thought in your back pocket for now.

Jesus Christ – The name “Jesus” doesn’t really warrant much explanation, though an interesting tidbit is that “Jesus” is the English way of saying the Greek translation of the Hebrew name “Yehôshua.” That name, if translated straight to English instead of to Greek first, is “Joshua.” So you can tell all your friends that Jesus’ name was Joshua. More important is the “Christ” part. What does that mean? The word “Christ” essentially means “anointed one,” or the same as “Messiah” from Hebrew. By saying “Jesus Christ,” Mark is saying, “Jesus the Messiah.”

This makes sense in connection with the theme of royal victory behind the term “Good News.” After all, there is nothing many of the Jews of Jesus’ day, of whom He was a part, wanted more than a Messiah who would rescue them from Rome in a military victory, and be crowned the true king under God. An unsuspecting reader from Mark’s world would at this point probably have in the mind the picture of a king like David, who would defeat God’s enemies and be acknowledged as God’s chosen ruler. The difference of the Messiah would be that He is the final king, whose victory and reign would be permanent and through whom God Himself would rule.

the Son of God – This is a particularly interesting title. See, before the early church did some serious study of what Jesus said about Himself, the term “son of God” had not been used to say someone had a divine nature, or was God. The most popular use of “son of God” when Mark was written would have been as more or less a synonym for “Messiah,” but with special emphasis on the royal aspect. In the Old Testament, the king of Israel, and Israel as a whole, was often spoken of as God’s son (Exod. 4:22-23, 2 Sam. 7:14, 1 Chr. 17:14, 22:10, 28:6, Ps. 2:6-7, 89:20-26, Ezek. 21:9-10, Hos. 11:1). This is important. God called Israel to be His child, and the king was especially so as God’s anointed representative of the whole nation. By Jesus’ day, these connections developed in many concepts of the Messiah, and the two phrases were practically synonyms (Matt. 16:16, 26:63, Mk. 14:61, John 1:49, 11:27).

So Mark here is again claiming Jesus as Messiah, only this time the emphasis is even more on His role as the King who represents all Israel in Himself. What He does is relevant for the whole nation. (Note that none of this is to say that Jesus wasn’t God’s son in another, more unique and divine, way as well. That’s simply not the original focus of the title “son of God.” Part of the reason this changed is because of who Jesus revealed Himself to be.)

The Theology Part

Putting these pieces we’ve just looked at together, we can start to see the startling scene Mark is trying to show us. Out of nowhere, Jesus appears. Like an unexpected scene in a dream, the Messiah has shown up. This is the beginning of the apocalyptic vision Mark has written his Gospel as. To dramatize it: “Good news!” he yells to his readers out of the fog. “Your Messiah has come!” The fog then parts to reveal the silhouette of Jesus.

We should remember that, for Mark’s readers, God has seemingly been silent and unhelpful to the Jews for many years. Even though they came back from Babylon way back when, many still believed that the Exile was still going on in some sense. They may be back in their land, but they’re still under pagan rule (the Romans this time), their king (Herod) is a corrupt puppet, and God has yet to do anything to show that He has returned to Jerusalem to dwell in His temple like He promised.

With this gloomy backdrop, the sudden appearance of the Messiah clearly has significance. Jesus has come to fix this situation, lead Israel out of exile, and win the final victory of God. This is indeed “Good News!” Yet whatever expectations may have been created in this first verse, the rest of the Gospel will end up confusing them.

For us, on the other side of these events, we know what has been accomplished. Jesus, the Messiah, who is God’s Son not only as King but as the eternal Word of God Himself, has defeated Satan and dealt with our sin on the Cross, then rose again. Now He is reigning on high, exalted above all. For us, the Jewish Messiah has already completed His mission, fulfilled the destiny of Israel, and brought us, the Gentiles who didn’t belong, in on the blessings. We now stand as one body, saved by Jesus alone, and acknowledge Him as the Son of God whose sudden appearance in history was the day of salvation for all people!

What to Do about It

So how are we to respond to what Mark 1:1? What changes can even this little verse make in our lives? I can think of a couple possible applications.

  • Just like Jesus suddenly appeared in the middle of Israel’s suffering to save His people, we now wait for Him to suddenly return. When He does, we have hope that He will implement His victory once and for all. In the mean time, we must work and prepare, telling the whole world about what Christ has done for us. One day time will run out, and just like Jerusalem was destroyed after it missed its chance with the Savior, so next time the whole world will fall if we do not prepare them for the return of the King.
  • God is always faithful, and we can trust Him. It had been 400 years since the Old Testament was written, and the Jews were wondering where God had gone. When would He help them again? Yet He did return to His people in Jesus just as He swore, and today we can trust that He will fulfill all of His promises to us. This means we can live boldly and without fear, doing whatever God calls us to, because we know He will do what He has promised.
  • We should never lose hope. Like I said, 400 years had gone by. No word from God in this time. Even after the Jews’ victory in the Maccabean revolt (study here if you’re interested), little progress was made and all the authorities were still corrupt. Pagan rule hadn’t stopped. Even in the midst of this bleak situation, though, God suddenly made His move for His people. So we can wait patiently, but also eagerly, because God might act at any moment to help us in whatever we need, or to rescue us from any of our sufferings. He could change your life whenever, so never lose heart.
Jesus the Apocalypse: The Messiah Appears

Jesus the Apocalypse: A Study on Mark

This is the third and final new series I’m starting now. I thought it would be fun to do a Bible study series on a particular book of the Bible. My recent studies have led me to Mark. The shortest and (according to most scholars) earliest of the Gospels, as well as the most cryptic, it begged for good study. So, on to the background details.

Date and Authorship

Mark is widely believed to have been the first Gospel written. More conservative dating puts it in the AD 50s, while more mainstream scholarship says 65-70. Very few people date it any later, simply because the book gives no indications that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70 had yet happened, which would have been very theologically significant if it had since Jesus is recorded to have prophesied this event.

While no solid historical evidence exists surrounding the author of Mark, and the book itself does not specify the author (remember that the titles were added later), the tradition of the early church was that a disciple of Peter named Mark wrote the book based on Peter’s preaching. Modern historians mostly disbelieve this tradition, but the reasons for this seem to be mostly involve skepticism about the historical truth of Mark. If Mark is taken as overall a reliable work, then there is no obvious reason to question the traditional claim.

Theme: Let the Reader Understand

The idea which I have recently run across, and which I plan to explore with this Bible study, is that Mark is essentially an apocalypse. At first, this may not make sense, but this is probably because of the widespread misunderstanding about what an apocalypse is. So in order to explain how and why Mark might be an apocalypse, I should address briefly what apocalyptic literature actually is.

In popular imagination, “apocalypse” means “end of the world.” But that’s not quite right. Our word apocalypse comes from the Greek word apokalupsis, which basically means an “unveiling” or a “revealing.” Specifically, the genre of apocalypse involves God revealing His secrets in mysterious ways, usually by strange visions or dreams. Daniel, for example, consists of much apocalyptic material. Sometimes they are interpreted there (like often happens in Daniel), and sometimes the reader is left to understand by himself. Often times, these revelations have to do with what God is about to do in the future (such as end times matters), but they can also refer to the present and the past, giving the heavenly, theological perspective on earthly events.

How does Mark fit into this category? It seems that Mark portrays Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection like a series of apocalyptic visions. The events of His life are written as short and cryptic, strung together like the scenes of a dream or visions with the word “immediately,” and ultimately ending in suspense. “Let the reader understand” seems to indeed apply to the whole of Mark; he gives us a mysterious picture of the Messiah which only those with ears to hear will truly understand.

Coming Up

With this context in mind, my next post will start at the beginning in Mark 1:1 and move on from there. I’m hoping to find lots of interesting goodness in this book, a book which testifies of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. Any fresh riches to find about Him are worth the search. So until next time, maybe try reading Mark with what I’ve mentioned in mind, if you’re at all interested. Comment if you find anything to say, as always.

Jesus the Apocalypse: A Study on Mark

Jesus the New and True Israel

What do God’s redemptive plan and the movie Inception have in common? Complex layers within complex layers. If you don’t know Inception, the movie is about dreams, and involves dreams within dreams within dreams. Each dream is very different, but also very connected to the dreams on the higher and lower levels. The dreams are all important and, after you wake up, end up changing your real life.

How does this relate to God’s redemptive plan? Like the Inception dreams, the history God shapes with His people has many very different but very connected parts. What happened with Adam is connected to what happened with Noah, which is connected to what happened with Abraham, which is connected to what happened with Isaac, Jacob, and all Israel, which is connected to what happened with Jesus. In fact, from the beginning with Adam, everything that happened was similar to and leading up to Jesus.

The most important connections involve Israel. In order to redeem all humanity, God chose one particular human family starting with Abraham (Gen. 12:3). These people came to be known as Israel, and they were not chosen because they were any different than everyone else (Deut. 9:4-5). In fact, as the whole sweep of the Old Testament reveals, the Israelites were no less messed up than all humanity. They had to be for God to bless all nations through them. If a doctor wants to cure a disease, will he study the healthiest person around and use him to test potential cures? No, he will take an average sick person just like all the rest, so that by curing one of them he can cure them all.

So what happened to Israel? First, they were born from a normal family. After an exile to Egypt, who persecuted them and killed their babies, they were baptized through the waters of the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10:1-2) and entered the desert, where they were tempted for 40 years. They received God’s laws so that they would love Him and love each other. As a kingdom of priests, God intended to make them shine before the world so that He would be worshiped by every people. After the 40 years they entered their land and conquered the evil people living there. But they disobeyed, so God let them be conquered themselves and carried off into another exile. Yet He was faithful to His promise, so He brought them back. (See a summary of all this in Acts 7:2-50.)

Since Israel failed so miserably and constantly, God’s plan to bless everyone on earth through them seemed to be at a standstill. How would God save the world if His chosen people were so stubborn and always resisted the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51)? As the prophets foretold in shadowy and obscure language, God Himself was going to create the perfect Israelite obedience He was looking for. He became a human being, a Jew Himself, so that despite human problems He could fulfill His covenant from both sides. The human being Jesus, who is the eternal Word of God, acted both as the faithful God and the faithful Israelite. But He couldn’t just start from the middle of their failures. He had to go back and redo the whole project.

Jesus was born in a normal family (Matt. 13:54-56). After escaping to Egypt while Herod killed babies, He was called out of Egypt back to the Promised Land (Matt. 2:15-16). There He was baptized in the waters of the Jordan River (Luke 3:21-22), and after that He entered the desert to be tempted for 40 days (Matt. 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13). He preached to Israel how to really obey God’s law to love Him and others (Matt. 5-7) and made His disciples to be the light of the world for God’s glory (Matt. 5:14-16). Then He went around Israel conquering the forces of evil in all forms: demons, death, suffering, and sin (Matt. 8:16-17). Through the Spirit (Luke 4:14) by means of prayer (Heb. 5:7) He remained obedient to God to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:8). But God was faithful to His beloved Son and brought Him back from the dead (Acts 13:30-37).

If you missed the strength of these parallels, try reading the paragraph about Israel again. I didn’t even cover them all. There are several smaller details as well, such as the miraculous feedings (Matt. 14:13-21 with 2 Kings 4:42-44), raising children from the dead (Matt. 9:18-26 with 2 Kings 4:18-37), and judging Jerusalem with the Temple (Luke 21:5-24 with 2 Chron. 36:10,15-19). Jesus relived the history of Israel, but with one crucial difference. Israel gave into temptation and disobeyed, leading to exile, and received a partial restoration simply because God was faithfully merciful, but Jesus resisted temptation and remained obedient, leading to a saving death, and He received a total, one-of-a-kind resurrection because of His own faithfulness to God.

This retelling of Israel’s story in Jesus is actually how we are saved. Israel, as we mentioned before, was only ever made of normal people among normal people. They stood before God as a microcosm of the entire human race. So by blessing and saving Israel God intended to bless and save all the world (again, Gen. 12:1-3). Yet Israel was unfaithful, and was always going to turn out that way, so within God’s chosen people God brought forth His chosen Son, Jesus. Jesus redid and repaired Israel’s history in His own life, winning salvation for His people (Matt. 1:21). His people, by the way, are firstly Israel, since He is a Jew, and secondarily all people, since He is human (Heb. 2:5-18). This is how salvation is from the Jews (John 4:22), and why Paul tells us that salvation and condemnation will come for the Jew first and also the for the Gentiles (Rom. 2:9-10). Jesus’ life fulfilled Israel’s life which fulfills humanity’s life.

Given all this, I can’t think of anything else to say. Words fail the complex reality God has accomplished in His Son. Praise God for Jesus, the new and true Israel!

Jesus the New and True Israel