The Church is those people who congregate—assemble, come together—around Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. The Church’s holiness and catholicity (universality) come from the one Holy Spirit who unites us to Christ. That is to say, the holiness of the Church is God’s own holiness shared with us all through our common spiritual union with Christ. We belong to God the Father, and he belongs to us, because the Son has anointed us with his Spirit. The Church is the burning bush, baptized with the purifying fire of God’s love to be the meeting place between God and humanity in the wilderness of this world. The Church is the temple filled with all the fullness of God (Eph. 2 & 3), the body (Eph. 4) and bride (Eph. 5) of Christ.

Maybe it seems strange that the Church is the object of our confession here, but truly it is a matter for our faith. We must believe that the Church is what God says it is. The Church is the materialization of salvation in the world; it is the accomplishment of Jesus Christ, the fruit of his labors. The Church is the result and vehicle of the Gospel; it is evidence of God’s work, the witness testifying to this world what God we find revealed in Jesus Christ. This may not be an intuitive conclusion to reach, judging by the appearance of the Church in its concrete, local expressions. The Church, in itself, has always been ugly—just read the New Testament letters! But we believe the Church is not merely in itself, but in Christ, and so beautified and glorified in God’s presence. By faith we extol the beauty of God’s handiwork rather than bemoan the Church’s blemishes.

The Church is where we find our place in God’s work, it is where we belong simply because God has arranged it. It is where God sets his Table and invites sinners to eat together, even though we don’t deserve the privilege. It is the place where people come to know the surprising welcome of forgiveness. It is the primary place where the disintegrated world is being knit back together in love, where relationships are reestablished because of Jesus Christ. It is not an abstract, theoretical knowledge of God we find in the Church, but a true, relational knowledge in community with real people gathered because of Jesus. Our commitment to one another in the Church mirrors our devotion to Jesus himself. There are many impulses natural to sinners that would drive us apart from God and from one another. But if Jesus was reason enough to bring us together in the first place, he will be reason enough to keep us together now and always.

What role does the Church have in your spirituality? How does the Church factor into your proclamation of the Gospel, the accomplishments of Christ? How is “the holy catholic Church” distinct from “the Roman Catholic Church”? What does the Bible say makes a congregation a true Church? Why should you go to Church? What does membership in the Church mean? For what reasons, if any, should you leave a particular Church and go to another? How do the holiness and catholicity (universality) of the Church impact your life? How does the Church shape your expectation and hope for the future of all reality? Where do you see the Image of God in the Church? When is it difficult to see the Image of God in the Church, and what should you do when that is the case?

 

The Holy Spirit is fully God, the whole God, the only true God. He is God in a different way of being than the Father or the Son, a uniquely and irreducibly distinct kind of divine Person. He is who he is because of the Father and the Son, and they are the Persons they are because of him (mutual hypostatization; they “em-Person-ize” each other and receive identity from each other).

The Father and Son mutually indwell each Other in the communion of the Holy Spirit. The Father gives himself to the Son in the Person of the Spirit, and the Son returns the self-gift in the Person of the same Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the “God-ness,” the very divinity of the God who is love. The Spirit is the holiness of the Triune God, the holiness of a God who exists in mutual belonging. (He is called “the Holy Spirit” because he is God existing in his love, which is so other, so foreign to our sinful existence, yet simultaneously so good for sinners.) The Spirit is the essence of God, insofar as he is the Father’s Being in the Son and the Son’s Being in the Father. The Spirit is the power of God, the freedom to love in complete self-gift. The Spirit is God’s love, God’s joy, personified in the act of being given. The Spirit is the glory of God (John 17:5), the very substance of God, God given to us for our knowledge of and delight in God. He is the promise of God (Acts 2:33, 38-39), the divine nature of whom we partake (2 Peter 1:3-4).

Jesus Christ is who he is because of the Holy Spirit, in both his divinity and his humanity. “Christ” is shorthand for “the Spirit-Anointed Son of the Father.” This same Spirit of Christ’s own Sonship is the Spirit of our adoption (Romans 8:15), because Jesus has anointed us with his own Anointing, baptized us with his own Spirit (Mark 1:8; Acts 1:5). The Spirit of Christ is the Spirit, not just of God, but of the God-man, and so in Christ he is our Spirit. Jesus has given us his eternal Spirit so that his union with God would be our unity in the church (John 17:22; Ephesians 4:3). Through the communion of the Spirit we become “sons” of God (whether male or female), sharing with Jesus his own full rights of divine inheritance. The Spirit takes everything that belongs to Christ and makes it ours: namely, Christ’s relationship with the Father. The Spirit is the Giver of Life, given to unite us to God in Christ, and it is only by his powerful presence that we are regenerated (John 3:7-8), made able to respond to God with faith and a fruitful life (Galatians 5:22-23). The Spirit directs our attention to Jesus Christ for complete redemption and fulfillment (John 14:26). He is the One by whom we are convicted of our sin and our need for Christ (John 16:7-9). He is the one by whom we know that we belong to God and that God belongs to us, the substance of the covenant promise (1 John 2:27; 4:13). He is the one by whose gifts we may truly love and edify one another in the church. The Spirit is the One by whom we are made “spiritual.” Human spirituality has to do with the Holy Spirit, or else it is not true spirituality. Thus, true spirituality is a community affair, and cannot be practiced in isolation or apart from prayer. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship (communion) of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14).

Who has the Holy Spirit? What is the Spirit’s role in prayer? What is the Spirit’s “relationship” to the Scriptures? How does biblical spirituality manifest in a person’s life? What are some current manifestations of the Spirit’s work in your life? Why does it seem like the Holy Spirit is so subtle in his presence and work? How do you know that you have the Holy Spirit? (Hint: think about the whole phrase from the Creed…)

Judges don’t merely declare what is good and evil, right and wrong; judges make right and redress evil. Judges mete out condemnation and vindication (1 Kgs. 8:32). Judges deliver from enemies, oppression, and injustice (think “the Book of Judges”). Judges rule, administering righteousness, love, and peace in relationships. As the source of all reality, God is “the Judge of all the earth” (Gen. 18:25). “He judges the world with righteousness” (Ps. 9:8). He does not merely judge actions, but the secrets of the heart and mind (Jer. 11:20; Rom. 2:16). His universal and good judgment is cause for rejoicing (Ps. 67:4; Ps. 98, esp. v. 9). We sought to be judges of God for ourselves, and acted as unjust judges, condemning his Son to death. He didn’t retaliate, but trusted that his Father’s ultimate judgment would be just (1 Pet. 2:23). Therefore God judged his Son to be faithful and true, and vindicated him in the resurrection. Our judgment now hinges on him.

God the Father has given all judgment to the Son (Jn. 5:22). He is “the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42; see also 2 Tim. 4:1). God has “fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man” (Acts 17:31, emphasis mine). Universal judgment has been given to a human being, whose judgment is just because he seeks not his own will, but his Father’s will (Isa. 11:3-4; Jn. 5:30). This man is Jesus Christ, the Alpha and Omega, the “eschaton man,” the one who is God’s judgment of humanity, in whom alone God will move forward with humanity into eternity. Jesus’ judgment is true, because he judges according to God’s nature, God’s reality, which is the ultimate truth. He is the Great High King who faithfully judges with righteousness and justice (Ps. 72:1-2), whose throne is established forever (Prov. 29:14). Christ’s judgment will not only remove his and our enemies; it will remove enmity itself from all the earth (Isa. 2:4). On the day of his return, all who ever lived—whether currently living or dead—will be made to stand before the Lord Jesus Christ, who will make all things right.

In a sense, Jesus has already spoken the final word of judgment to which we may respond (Jn. 12:48), and those who reject the Gospel judge themselves “unworthy of eternal life” (Acts 13:46). But there is freedom when we stop judging ourselves and acknowledge the Lord’s good and gracious judgment of us (1 Cor. 4:3-4). We wrongly grasped for judgment, but the gift of God is that Jesus will share even his own judgment with us (Lk. 22:29-30; 1 Cor. 6:2-3). As Paul wrote at the end of his life, “There is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8).

What is your judgment of Jesus, the Word of God? Do you believe in his imminent return to judge the living and the dead? Why or why not? What do you assume the word, “judgment,” means? Is it the same way Jesus uses the word? Have your non-Christian friends heard about the promised judgment as a matter for their fear, or for their hope? How do you feel about Christ’s judgment penetrating to the secrets of your heart and mind? Is it really possible to rest and rejoice in the idea of Christ’s final judgment, to “love his appearing”? What difference, if any, does Christ’s future return make in your present life? How does God say it should affect your life, and what does that say about God? What might it mean that we will be given the place of judgment alongside Christ in the new world?

Kingship is a constant theme running throughout the Scriptures. The Triune God created humanity in his image to enjoy his own rule over everything he has made (Gen. 1:26-28). This rule is meant to be characterized by rest, peace, and glory as humanity is in right relationship with God (Gen. 2:1-3). We abdicated, traded, and fell short of this glory when we willingly became subservient to the serpent (Gen. 3), a creature explicitly meant to be under our dominion. In reaching for authority for ourselves, in seeking power autonomously from God, we lost true power and authority. The Scriptures are the record of God’s work to reestablish true human Kingship, especially over all the power of the serpent-enemy (Gen. 3:15). Kings are at the center of the history of God’s relating to his people (think “1 & 2 Kings”). To his shepherd-king, David, God promised a great name, rest from all his enemies, and an offspring whose throne and kingdom he would establish forever (2 Sam. 7). This greater son of David would be David’s Lord (Ps. 110; Lk. 20:41-44), the divine-human King of Glory (Ps. 24), Ruler over everything God has made (Ps. 8; Heb. 2:5-9).

Jesus is this true and everlasting King, the King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev. 19:16) who was taken up in glory (1 Tim. 3:16). Jesus is King now, and this is an apex feature of the Gospel preached by the Apostles throughout the Book of Acts. Upon his Ascension he was seated (his “Session”) at the right hand of Power (Lk. 22:69), at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Heb. 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2). God sits upon his throne, and at his right hand—the place of rest and prominence and power at the helm of all reality (Col. 3:1)—is the Crucified and Risen Lord Jesus. God has made him Lord and Christ (Acts 2:34-36), exalted him as Leader and Savior (Acts 5:30-31), raising him far above all rule, authority, power, and dominion (Eph. 1:20-22), subjecting all his enemies under his feet (Heb. 10:13; 1 Pet. 3:22). All authority in heaven and on earth have been given to him (Mt. 28:18). In fact, God has even granted this Man to baptize with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:33), effectively wielding God’s own power and glory.

Jesus was granted this universal, eternal Kingship precisely because he never reached for autonomous power, for self-rule, but has always been in perfect submission to his Father (John 5:19, 30), even to the point of his terrible death (Phil. 2:8-11). He does not exercise power for his own sake, but demonstrates the true power of love as he laid down his life for his friends (Jn. 10:17-18; 15:13). It is this very same Jesus who lived and died for others (Heb. 13:8) who now rules over all things for the sake of others. His Session at God’s right hand is not for his own sake, but as our Representative, our Vicar, so that he might bring “many sons to glory” (Heb. 2:10). His Session means the continuation of his Priesthood (Ps. 110; Heb. 4:14; 5:5; 6:20; 8:1), as he appears in the presence of God on our behalf (Heb. 9:24) to make intercession for us always (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25). In his own Person, in our place, he has restored humanity to its inheritance, its intended place at God’s right hand, and because of his grace we will one day reign with him forever (2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 5:10; 22:5).

Have you sought to usurp God’s rule in your life? What has that looked like? How has that worked out for you, honestly? Do you believe that God has always sought to share his rule with you? Do you usually think of the Gospel only in terms of past events, or also with Christ’s present Session in mind? Why do Christians seem to be prone to relegate the Gospel to the past? What are some aspects of Christ’s Session that are important to you? Why do people often get angry at this Good News (Mt. 26:63-68; Acts 7:54-58)?

 

 

The proclamation, “he ascended into heaven,” is the glorious counterpart to the utter humiliation of Christ proclaimed in the earlier phrase, “he descended into hell.” The Gospel of Jesus Christ was not complete with his death and bodily resurrection. The mission of God the Son was to restore humanity to its divinely intended place in God’s presence, to exalt and to glorify humanity. He was triumphant in this mission upon his ascension. “It was God who went into the far country, and it was man who came home” (Barth). Our “deification” happened when Jesus carried our restored/perfected/resurrection humanity into God’s presence, never to be cast out again. As the Ascended Man he is the Eschaton Man, the Omega Man, the Man who has gone where humanity was always destined by the will of God to go. And he is our Man, our Vicar, our Representative. He went to prepare a place for us (John 14:3), because he wants us to be with him where he is (John 17:24). In his ascension we have been glorified (Romans 8:30). “Your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).

“He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10). “This Jesus” (Acts 1:11)—the Ascended Jesus—is the very same Jesus we see in the Gospels (Hebrews 13:8). He remains the humble, loving Servant-Lord. He remains Immanuel, “God with us,” even after his physical departure. Jesus didn’t just ascend into the heaven of God’s creation, but beyond it, to Glory, to the eternal dwelling place of God, to the divine heart of all reality, so that he could be present to all reality. Therefore, his ascension should not be seen as a loss of his presence, but as the super-cosmic universalization of the Gospel, that God is with our humanity and our humanity is with God, forever.

Does your understanding of the Gospel include the Ascension? How does it factor in to your evangelism? How does the Ascension change your view of God? Of the world? Of yourself? What hints are there in the Old Testament that humanity’s ascension was God’s plan all along?

 

Jesus was raised from the dead bodily on the third day following his death, according to the Hebrews’ inclusive manner of counting time. That is, he died on a Friday and was raised on Sunday (the first day of the week). Friday, Saturday, Sunday: the third day is Sunday. Jesus taught several times from the Hebrew Scriptures (our “Old Testament”) the necessity not only of his death for our salvation, but also of his resurrection—and that specifically on the third day (Matthew 16:21; Luke 18:31-33; 24:46). Jesus believed that someone who understood the Scriptures would conclude that the Messiah’s resurrection would necessarily take place on the third day. Paul also maintained the Scripturality of the third day resurrection as being of primary importance in the Christian faith (1 Corinthians 15:4). This assertion might puzzle someone searching the Old Testament for a simple, declarative, propositional statement on the matter.

We must learn to read the Old Testament as Jesus and Paul read it. From the beginning, the Scriptures have portrayed creation as containing within itself the “seed” of new creation that comes through death and resurrection. On the Third Day of creation (Genesis 1:9-13), God created “plants yielding seeds” (Heb., zera) and “trees bearing fruit in which is their seed” (v. 12, emphasis added). Seed plants are “resurrection” plants; new life is created as the seed falls to the ground and dies (John 12:24). It is a pattern, a paradigm, a principle of God’s creation—life, death, resurrection—that we have codified on the Third Day through the idea of the seed. On the Sixth Day, man—uniquely among all living creatures—is given this spiritually significant Third Day food to eat: seed-fruit plants, resurrection food to give life to our bodies as we take it in to ourselves. Then, in Genesis 3, after the fruit rebellion, God promised that the seed (zera) of the woman would deliver humanity from the power of the serpent, which is death (Hebrews 2:14). The implication is that the Savior would bring new life to a world under the rule of death through the Third Day seed-fruit process—through his own death and resurrection.

The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is no one’s opinion, but a decisive, historical, public event (Acts 26:23, 26; 1 Corinthians 15:5-8). As the seed of the woman, the firstborn of the dead (Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5), Jesus is the firstfruits of the new creation (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23). He is the proof of God’s good intentions toward humanity, the fulfillment of all God’s promises. He is how humanity is supposed to be, immortal and glorified in body and soul, resting in his victory over all God’s and our enemies. Our humanity has been made right in his resurrection (Romans 4:25). The resurrection of Jesus Christ has always been God’s plan for the renewal of the world. And his resurrection is paradigmatic of God’s power (Ephesians 1:18-20). Because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have permission to see that God’s resurrection power is always at work among us and on our behalf, even when—perhaps especially when—circumstances appear most dire and bleak. God specializes in resurrection, as seen most clearly in his Son Jesus Christ. His resurrection changes the meaning of everything in the world, a fact we celebrate as we gather weekly for Worship on the Day of the Lord’s Resurrection (1 Corinthians 16:2; Revelation 1:10). He is risen. He is risen indeed.

Can you believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead? Don’t you want to believe it? How does this essential tenet of the Christian faith rank among your personal core beliefs about God, salvation, and reality? When do you most need to remember Christ’s resurrection? What are some of the real ramifications of Christ’s resurrection? What are some of the implications of your believing Christ’s resurrection? Do you see the resurrection as a central element of the proclamation of the Gospel? Of your personal evangelism or encouragement of other believers?

 

 

Broken Rainbows

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In Genesis 9, after the flood-judgment, God makes covenant promises to Noah, and to the living creatures of the new world that has been delivered through the judgment. “God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth'” (Genesis 9:12-13).

In Hosea 2, God speaks of the coming war-judgment on Israel, and of the promises he will make to his people and living creatures. These promises are reminiscent of those he made to Noah after the flood-judgment. “I will make for them a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the creeping things of the ground. And I will break the bow, the sword, and war from the land, and I will make you lie down in safety” (Hosea 2:18). So, there are several parallels:

Flood-judgment // War-judgment

Covenant with Noah & creatures // Covenant with Israel & creatures

Bow hung in the cloud // Bow (& other weapons) broken

In the rainbow—the war bow hung up in the cloud—we have a vivid picture of God’s promise to make war against war itself, to bring everlasting peace and security to the whole world. This is something we have in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We have peace with God and with each other in the church because Jesus has removed our enmity through his sacrifice of love. And we have the promise of perfect peace in the New Heavens and the New Earth. Interestingly, it’s most common to see not a full bow in the clouds, but a partial rainbow. This is a better visual symbol of God’s promise to “break the bow,” to bring an end to all our warfare with God and each other. The rare complete rainbow is a sight to see. But, ordinarily, the bow we see is broken. As it should be.

This phrase of the Apostles’ Creed may be the most inscrutable. Christians in different traditions have understood it differently. It is unlikely that it refers to a point chronologically after Jesus’ bodily death and burial, a point at which his soul “went down” to a tormented netherworld, some metaspatial hinterland where his spiritual sufferings continued for a time until his resurrection. Remember, he promised the thief on the cross next to him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). And with his last breath he committed his spirit into his Father’s hands (Luke 23:46). Apparently Jesus believed that, as his earthly life expired, he would be received by God his Father in heaven without a stopover in hell. The credal reference to his descent into hell, then, speaks to the nature of what he suffered on the cross. We often summarize the Gospel this way: “Jesus died to save us from our sins.” His descent into hell is how he did that. We understand it to be a soteriological statement; on the cross, Jesus suffered the holy wrath of God for the sins of his people.

This doesn’t make the event itself any less inscrutable, though. What does it mean, that Christ “suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18)? What exactly happened, and how did it “work”? Heaven and hell are “places” (real, but surpassing our comprehension) defined primarily by relationship to God. God is present in both places—otherwise, they would not maintain their existence. Being in heaven means being with God in mutual love. Being in hell means being in God’s presence, but without him, not in mutual love. So the sinless Jesus Christ suffered the relational chasm from God that we in our sins deserve. On the cross—in our stead, on our behalf, for our sake—Jesus went to the impossible place of being absolutely cut off from God in God’s holy presence. He experienced God’s presence as hell so that we might experience God’s presence as heaven. He went alone into “the outer darkness” (Matthew 22:13), into “the unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:48). “He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows… he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace” (Isaiah 53:4-5). Somehow, we find our reconciliation to God in his descent into hell.

Have you thought about heaven and hell in relational terms before? Why do our sins deserve hell? How could it be possible that Jesus would suffer relational separation from God? Does this mean the temporary disintegration of the Trinity? How could it be possible that his suffering hell for us would result in our enjoying heaven? Why does our salvation “work” this way? Did it have to be this way? Does any of this bother you? Whose idea was all this? What are some other biblical passages that talk about Christ’s suffering on the cross in terms of our redemption or atonement or salvation? Are you even interested in any of this?

 

This is based on the Decalogue (the “Ten Commandments,” found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5). It is not entirely original—it was inspired by a similar version used in a Worship service of the Pacific Northwest Presbytery of the PCA. In fact, I really can’t remember how much of it I borrowed and how much I wrote! Please feel free to use this in your personal or public Worship.

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O Lord, we have loved other gods before you and have become their servants. We have not worshiped you in spirit and in truth. We have brought insult upon your reputation. We have not trusted you to give us rest. We have not honored others as they deserve. We have hated our neighbors. Our desires are all distorted and misplaced. We have taken for ourselves what did not belong to us. We have lied, slandered, and gossiped. We have coveted the good blessings you gave to others. O Lord, have mercy on us, for we have not kept your law. Forgive us for the sake of your Son, our Savior, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Please feel free to use this in your personal or public Worship.

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Holy One, we confess that we are unholy. We have taken the side of your Enemy and believed his lies rather than your Word. At a deep level we are suspicious of your goodness and authority. We revel in your gifts but do not delight in you. We are ungrateful and deluded in our pretended autonomy. You are Love, but we love ourselves and hate you. We sin. Clearly we do not deserve your forgiveness, but we are bold to ask for it because of your Son, Jesus, who loved us and gave himself for us. Please, Father, assure us of your love through the Gospel of your Son, and purge our sins through the cleansing fire of your Holy Spirit. We ask in the name of Jesus and according to his will. Amen.