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.

“Crucified means rejected… Death is the end of all present possibilities of life… In the grave [man] drops into forgottenness” (Barth). This describes the fate that humanity has chosen for itself in choosing sin, choosing rebellion against the Creator, choosing the distortion of the created nature. And it describes the fate that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, took upon himself in our stead, to fulfill righteousness and to reconcile us to God for eternal life. The prolonged torment of crucifixion was “the most cruel and horrifying punishment” (Cicero). Once you were on the cross, the only remaining comfort was death—which is no comfort. Jesus gave himself to suffer the most violent hostility. The cross of Christ is the picture of our conflict with God, the showcase of our kind of power… and now it is the symbol of our peace with God, the showcase of God’s kind of power, because through it God has killed our sin and death. Jesus became our sin (2 Corinthians 5:21), he became our curse (Galatians 3:13), and as such he died, according to God’s plan.

This is the glorious power of God because it is the shape of his love. Jesus didn’t put his divine glory on pause while he was crucified, dead, and buried; the “hour” of his cross was the hour of his glory (John 12:23; 17:1). The God-man was willing to endure death for us. His freedom to love us like this is identical to his power. The cross is the ultimate exercise of Christ’s authority, which is an authority to give himself for the sake of those who would usurp God’s authority and distort his power in their self-exaltation. Christ died to give life to those who killed him, and in this he is glorified.

Are you able to trust in and give thanks for Jesus’ death on your behalf? How do you feel about God’s love being cruciform in shape? Is the Father’s love for the Son visible in the cross, or is this just divine child abuse? What does Jesus mean when he says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23)? Is the Father’s love for you as his adopted child visible in the cross you’re called to bear? How does this vision of God’s love shape your own love? Are there people in your life who do not receive the love of God through the cross of Christ? Can you imagine what their particular reservations might be?

 

Why is there a reference to Pilate (of all people!) in our creed? This is a statement of essential beliefs about God, isn’t it? Pilate was a traitorous, manipulative, self-seeking, power-hungry, cowardly, political figure. In other words, he’s one of us. He imagines himself to be what the first Adam wanted to be: the self-made master of his domain, the judge of God himself. In this he represents the old humanity. We all share that nature, and he acted on our behalf with regard to Jesus Christ. His historical actions as a public representative have profound spiritual significance.

Jesus suffered under Pilate. He suffered false accusations, the destruction of his reputation, public humiliation, unjust punishment, and mindless cruelty under Pilate’s power. He was willing to do that. The Son of God condescended to submit to the corrupt authority of Adam’s race as exercised by Pilate, even to death. He suffered under us; the True King suffered under would-be usurpers. And the beauty of it is that he suffered for us. His suffering perfected him as our savior (Hebrews 2:10). His suffering reveals a God who is willing to take the pain of hostility in order to remove the hostility, to let our rebellion wash over him so that he could raise us to his right hand in glory. He didn’t set aside his divine authority in order to suffer under our corrupt authority; his suffering revealed precisely the shape of his divine authority as the authority to lay down his life for the sake of love (John 10:17-18). In his submission Jesus’ new humanity opposes the old, imperious humanity, and “loses.” But, actually, the victory belongs to him, because his is the true humanity in God’s image, and our old humanity stands self-condemned for having opposed him.

Do you think political leaders only represent us in remote, limited, administrative ways, or in more comprehensive, spiritually-significant ways? How do you feel about Pilate representing you? How do you feel about current political leaders representing you? Do you believe that Jesus, in his new humanity, represents you? What does that mean? What does it mean to live as a citizen of his Kingdom? What does it mean to exercise authority like his? What does it mean to stand in opposition to the old humanity through our solidarity in Christ’s new humanity?

Why was Jesus born of a virgin? Is that how he could remain sinless? Does it make him a magical demigod? Actually, it goes all the way back to the beginning of the Bible, to the first promise of the Gospel. After Adam and his wife sinned, God made a threat-promise to the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring [seed] and her offspring [seed]; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). God would be the one to wrench humanity back from the devil’s dominion, and he would do so through the seed of the woman. This is an enigmatic way of talking about a future champion. Women don’t have “seed,” men do. Ordinarily we’d expect the man’s offspring to be the object of such a prophecy. The Bible is full of lists of “this man” begetting “that man,” but man could not bring his own salvation into the world. God would do something unconventional to show his will and power to save.

And Jesus wasn’t just born of any old virgin, but of Mary, in the house and city of David. Among God’s many gracious promises was the fantastic one made to David concerning his descendant: “I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son” (2 Samuel 7:12-14). Jesus is unique, but he is truly human; he shares our nature. And he is the great King of Israel whose rule and deliverance extends to all nations. The King of kings is one of us! His kingdom is for people like us! It is customary for nations to commemorate the reigns of kings and dynasties; now the whole earth measures time according to the rule of our brother, Jesus Christ (Anno Domini, “The Year of the Lord”). Two thousand Years of Jubilee, two millennia of the rule of the promised seed of the woman is a good start to his eternal dominion!

Why do you suppose it is so difficult for us to hold together the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus? According to the Scriptures, why must the Messiah be truly both? How does the unique-yet-shared humanity of Jesus encourage you? In what ways are you prone to forget its importance? Do you feel like the Virgin Birth is an odd doctrine for which you must make apologies, or Good News you celebrate and share with others?

 

The angel told Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). There is no spectacular moment of conception recorded in the Gospels, only this startling Word that marks The Most Significant Moment: the act of the Triune God in the Incarnation of the Father’s Son through the Spirit. This was unlike any other human conception; this was a new creation. God—remaining God—added to himself a created human nature, entering into the history of what he has made, never to exit that history, never to renounce his union with his creation.

This conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit in history is analogous to the begetting of the Son by the Holy Spirit in eternity. The Spirit is not the Son’s Father—that would be the Father, the Most High. The Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, is the Father’s power to beget and to create. When Jesus is conceived by the Father’s Holy Power, he is called “holy—the Son of God.” By the Spirit, Jesus is the Holy Son of God in his uncreated/divine nature and in his created/human nature. He is the only Son so begotten/conceived, the only Son holy “by nature.” Yet, the same Spirit who is involved in the eternal begetting of the Son, who was involved in Jesus’ conception, is also involved in our “being born again.” A Christian’s Spiritual rebirth is analogous to Christ’s own Spiritual conception, because it is the same Spirit of Sonship who makes Jesus the Holy Son of God who is the Spirit of Adoption making many sons holy. We are made holy sons of God by adoption as the Spirit unites us to the One who is the Holy Son by nature. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Have you thought of the Incarnation of the Son of God as “The Most Significant Moment”? How is each Person of the Trinity involved in this act? Is Jesus’ miraculous conception (and what that means for who he is) difficult for you, or others you know, to apprehend, imagine, or believe? Have you talked with people outside the church about what it means that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit?

“Our Lord”

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“God has made [Jesus] both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). “The LORD said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand'” (Ps. 110:1; cf. Mt. 22:44; Mk. 12:36; Lk. 20:42; Acts 2:34). “There is… one Lord” (Eph. 4:4-5). “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). “Jesus is Lord” is probably the most controversial statement in the history of the world. It is the oldest creed of the church. The title, “Lord,” is used of God hundreds of times in the Old Testament, and is used of Jesus throughout the New Testament. Jesus is Lord, divinely and humanly. It seemed that his followers instinctively called him “Lord” (which implies that other rulers are not Lord). He is the Lord: absolutely, uniquely, and exclusively. And he is our Lord: personally, heroically, and vicariously. Jesus is Lord on our behalf and for our sake.

Consider what kind of man the Lord Jesus is. He loves his Father—he has no “daddy issues.” He is whole. He is “the Prince of Shalom” (Isa. 9:6), the Prince of Wholeness and Peace. He delights in God’s Law, always loving God with his whole being and loving his neighbor as himself, putting the needs of others before his own. He stands fast against the deceptions and temptations of the devil; through his faithfulness he has crushed the serpent’s strength. His good intentions are seen in his miraculous provisions, healings, and exorcisms. His power is seen in his sacrificial service. He calls his people his friends; he prays for us and pours out his life for us. He has besieged and overwhelmed even death itself on our behalf. “His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Dan. 7:14). And now he prepares a place for us to join him in his everlasting kingdom, because the Lord wants us to be with him where he is. This One is our Lord! One day, one way or another, “every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11). That sounds like Good News worth sharing!

Why is the statement, “Jesus is Lord,” so controversial? Why are we instinctively threatened by this statement? What kinds of resistance do various people offer to this statement, and how can the Gospel subvert such resistance? What does Jesus’ Lordship mean to you, personally? Do you ever think of evangelism as the joyful proclamation of the Good News of his Lordship? Do you ever think of service done in the Lord’s name as princely?

“I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment… He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine.” (John 16:7-8, 14-15)

Forty days after his Resurrection, Jesus ascended bodily into heaven. Jesus had known his disciples would have a hard time with his departure. He spent a lot of time preparing them for it on the night of his betrayal, as recorded in the Upper Room Discourse (John 13-16) and his High Priestly Prayer (John 17). His disciples were confused, to say the least. Why did Jesus have to leave? We easily share their confusion. Wouldn’t it be easier for us to be Christians if he were still here? Contrary to our instincts, Jesus insisted that his Ascension was for our good. “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away.” Jesus wasn’t saying, “Look, the Ascension is beyond my control, it’s just the way it has to be.” He knew the Ascension would mean wonderful things for his people in the world. He wanted to go, and he wanted his disciples to share his enthusiasm.

In the Person of Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God—who was eternally begotten of the Father—became also human. He’s unique, and it’s strange for us. It’s easy for us to imagine him in his divinity, because he has been in heaven for so long. But his humanity isn’t just the stuff of high legend; his humanity continues. The Incarnation is irreversible. So it’s not “just” the Son of God who returned to heaven. It’s the Son of Man, the Messiah, the descendant of David, the Last Adam, the True Human who ascended into heaven and is seated at God’s right hand in glory. Jesus Christ is the God-Man, the King of Glory (Psalm 24), and his Ascension means that we have a Man on the throne of Reality. The crucified and risen Lord rules the cosmos as our Representative, our Champion, our Vicar. He has fulfilled the destiny for which humanity was originally created: to rest and rule with God over all creation (Gen. 1-2).

But there’s more. Not only has the Man Jesus Christ ascended far above all created powers, but he has received the Spirit without measure, and now he sends forth his Spirit into the world. The Spirit of God is now the Spirit of Christ—the Spirit of the God-man. “All that the Father has is mine.” A Man owns and commands the divine Spirit, God himself, the third Person of the Trinity. A Man determines where the Father’s Spirit goes. This is the extent to which God has shared his rule with humanity; he has given himself to humanity in the Person of his Spirit.

Jesus Christ sends his/God’s Spirit to us in order to share all this with us. The Spirit does this by holding Christ forth to us in all his beautiful mercy. “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine.” As a Man, Jesus has inherited God himself, and wields all his power, and his purpose is to share that with us. So he pours out his/God’s Spirit, the Christ-centered Spirit, the Spirit of Truth (as Jesus is the Truth; John 14:6). The Spirit gets Jesus in front of us. As the Spirit introduces us to Jesus, we are provoked to the same response anyone ever had when meeting Jesus in the flesh. When Jesus walked into a room, he had a polarizing effect on people. Now he doesn’t walk into rooms, but his Spirit introduces him around the world as the Gospel is proclaimed.

The first effect this has on sinners is one of conviction. “When [the Spirit] comes, he will convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment.” Good news! The Spirit will convince you of your guilt, and bring you to a point of confession! Maybe that sounds odd, but it’s true. When he presents us with the True and Good Humanity of Jesus Christ we sense the great contrast with your own corruption. We’re a poor excuse for the image of God, compared to Jesus, who is “the radiance of his glory and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). If you sense your spiritual bankruptcy when the Spirit gets Jesus in front of you, it is well! If not, he probably needs to convict you of your “righteousness,” which is like filthy rags (Isa. 64:6). Our righteousness is a self-glorification project where we try to manage others’ estimation of ourselves by doing good things. Whenever Jesus walked into the room with self-righteous people like that, they wanted to kill him because he exposed what was really going on in their hearts. When the Spirit gets Jesus in front of self-righteous people, it makes us able to say out loud, “I have hated God. I have despised him, and that’s a problem. I need true righteousness, and only Jesus Christ the Righteous can provide that.” And when the Spirit convicts us of judgment, he shows us that Jesus has already condemned the devil, “the ruler of this world.” You’ve only got two options: remain under the devil’s authority and suffer his judgment with him, or submit to the authority of Jesus Christ and find forgiveness.

God is throwing everything he’s got at you to convince you of your need for his mercy, so that you would confess your sins and give up your own “righteousness” as a means of self-justification, self-salvation. Jesus sent his/God’s Spirit to assure you of God’s merciful intentions with all of this. It’s only when you know that God is on your side, that he sent the God-man to be for you, that the God-man sent the Spirit for your advantage that you will be able to admit your rebellion. God’s word to you in Christ is forgiveness, so it really is safe to admit that you’d deeply (and unreasonably!) hated God. This is what the Spirit’s work looks like in your life as he glorifies Christ, as he takes all that belongs to Christ and shares it with you! Jesus wants you with him where he is, resting and ruling at God’s side, and that’s why he sent the Spirit to bring you to a place of confession.

“Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High… The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.” (Luke 1:31-32, 35)

The experience and understanding of the Holy Spirit is elusive. The Hebrew ruach and Greek pneuma, the biblical words for “spirit,” are also translated “breath” and “wind.” “The pneuma blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Pneuma” (John 3:8-9). “As you do not know the way the ruach comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything” (Ecclesiastes 11:5).

It’s understandable that the Holy Spirit is difficult to understand. The Trinity is not easy for us to conceptualize. One God in three Persons? Each Person irreducibly distinct from the Others as a way of being a Person (the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, the Spirit is not the Father) yet each Person fully divine and the whole God (the Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God, consubstantial and coeternal)? Mutual indwelling, the Father in the Son, and the Son in the Father? It’s no wonder that we wonder at the Holy Spirit! (We call him “Holy,” partly because he is so Other, and it’s a way to express what is inexpressible.) “Should not the contemplation of the mysteries of our faith be a delight, especially if the contemplation is that of the immeasurable and unsurpassable font of all the mysteries—the most holy Trinity?” (Thomas Weinandy, The Father’s Spirit of Sonship).

In Luke’s Gospel, when the angel Gabriel visits young Mary, we hear of the Holy Spirit as “the power of the Most High” who will “overshadow” Mary as the cloud of the glory of God’s presence overshadowed God’s people, Israel, in the wilderness, and descended upon the tabernacle and, later, the temple. The Spirit is God come to the meeting place between God and his people. In Ezekiel’s vision, he saw this Spirit-glory-cloud depart the temple, only to return later in the New Temple. Now, the Spirit-glory-cloud comes upon Mary as the New Temple, the new meeting place between God and his people, is conceived in her womb.

This conception was a New Creation. The Son had his divine existence in the Godhead, eternally begotten of the Father through the Spirit. Now he had his human existence in an analogous way, created by the Father through the Spirit. Jesus, the Incarnate Son, had no earthly, biological father. The Spirit is not Jesus’ Father. The divine Father was the creator of his new humanity, and that through his power, through the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is the Giver of Life. He is the Gift of the Father that brings forth Life. The Life that he brings forth, supremely, is the Son. The Incarnate Son is our Life (John 14:6; 1 John 1:2). The Holy Spirit gives us Jesus. He gave Jesus to the world in his conception, the beginning of the New Creation. Jesus is unique because of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit was the lavishing of the Father’s approving love upon Jesus as he pledged solidarity with sinners at his Baptism (Luke 3:22). The Spirit descended upon Jesus at the waters of his Baptism like a fluttering dove, hovering over God’s New Creation just as he had hovered over the face of the waters in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1-2).

The Spirit led Jesus, our Champion, to recapitulate our battle with the devil, this time victoriously (Luke 4:1-2). The Spirit anointed Jesus to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God (Luke 4:18). The Spirit was the one through whom Jesus rejoiced in prayer to the Father (Luke 10:21). It was by the Spirit of God that Jesus cast out demons (Matthew 12:28). It was in the Holy Spirit that Jesus offered himself to his Father as a sacrifice for our sins (Hebrews 9:14). And it was by the power of the Most High, by the Holy Spirit that Jesus was raised from the dead (Romans 1:4).

“When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:4-6). It is because of the Holy Spirit’s work upon the Incarnate Son and through the Incarnate Son that Jesus is Life to us. Jesus is Life to us by being the New Creation for us. His New Humanity is ours, as a gift of God’s grace, a gift given through the Holy Spirit.

The breath of God that made the first Adam a living being, that made the last Adam a life-giving spirit, is the Breath that Jesus breathed out upon his disciples (John 20:22), giving us his own Life so that we may live on his behalf in this world. “The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life” (Job 33:4). God, at work through the Person of the Holy Spirit, says, “Jesus,” for the life of the world. A Spirit-filled church, then, will also say, “Jesus,” for the life of the world. The Life-giving Breath of Christ is in our lungs and on our lips. Amen.