The Truths of Which We Now Sing (1 Tim 3:16)

posted by R. Fowler White

The Apostle Paul wrote in First Timothy 3:16 (NASB95): By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory. 

As we have entered another season of celebrating the incarnation of God the Son, we sing of that great mystery of godliness that, as expressed in the phrases of 1 Tim 3:16, has now been revealed in Christ. So let’s be clear: by mystery we don’t mean something esoteric or cryptic, but rather truth made known only by divine revelation. About this particular mystery there is said to be common consent in God’s confessing church. It is a mystery summarized here in six lyrical phrases from what was most probably an early Christian hymn, sung in three stanzas of two lines each. Let’s consider the truth revealed in each line.

We sing of the incarnation of Christ: He who was manifested in the flesh. According to the Apostle Paul, our song begins with the fact that that Child in the feeding trough was the pre-existent Son of the Father, God of God, God with God, who has permanently taken to Himself human nature, having become forever thereafter one Person with two natures, divine and human. Miraculously conceived and preserved from sin’s defilement by the Holy Spirit, His birth began His suffering. That suffering became hostility and insult; then betrayal, abandonment, scorn, rejection, condemnation; then torment, facing the terrors of death, feeling and bearing the weight of God’s wrath as a sacrifice for sin, enduring painful, shameful, cursed crucifixion. His death brought an end to the earthly phase of His manifestation in the flesh. Of His incarnation we sing in our song, because with it the historical accomplishment of our redemption began. But there is more to our song.

We sing of the vindication of Christ: He was vindicated [justified] by the Spirit. When He was manifested in the flesh, the Son became the servant who submitted Himself to God’s law and conquered Satan, sin, and death. He became the one Man whom God has justified by His works. Made alive by the Spirit, everything Jesus said and did was certified as faithful and true. We sing, then, of Christ vindicated, the only immortal and now glorified Man.

We sing of the appearances of Christ: He was seen by angels. Even heaven’s angels have beheld Him, resurrected and ascended in theophanic glory. Through the incarnate and vindicated Son of Man, humanity has been restored to the heavenly sanctuary, and the angelic host now assist Him to maintain heavenly Mt Zion’s accessibility and inviolability even as they assist all who will inherit salvation. To paraphrase what another has said, the angels sang at His birth, ministered to Him in His hour of temptation, guarded His tomb, testified to His resurrection, witnessed His ascension, and look forward to His return. Just so, we sing now of His appearances to angels.

We sing of the proclamation of Christ: He was proclaimed among the nations. As the NT teaches us, the Apostles were equipped and authorized for their gospel ministry by Christ. Once He was vindicated by the Spirit and seen by angels, we read of how they labored hard to tell the nations about the saving mission, the justifying grace, and the transforming mercy of the patient and powerful Christ. They did indeed tell the nations in their day of Christ—and the church built on the foundation of Christ continues to tell the nations of Him, so that, at last, people from all families on earth will join in praise to Christ who is God our King. Even so, we sing the everlasting song of Christ proclaimed among all nations.

We sing of the reception of Christ: He was believed on in the world. For over 2,000 years now Christ has been believed on in the world. The first eyewitnesses of His resurrection believed: Mary, Peter, John, even Thomas, among others. After the Twelve believed, then Pentecost came and thousands believed on that day. The evangelistic mission only expanded to reach even the imperial capital of Rome. We see a global, worldwide mission bringing a global, worldwide harvest of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, a harvest so great that no one can count its numbers. It is of this Christ—of Christ believed on in the world—whom we sing.

Lastly in our hymn, we sing of the ascension of Christ: He was taken up in glory. Raised from the dead in glory, Christ was taken up in glory into the highest invisible heavens. He is there at this very moment, crowned and enthroned, radiating majesty and splendor, preparing a place for all of us who believe, making intercession for us, answering all accusations against us, making sure that we have access with boldness to the throne of grace. From glory He came; to glory He has returned. And so of His ascension, His present coronation and reign, we sing.

These are among the truths of which we the church now do sing in this season of celebration. Singing of such things as incarnation, vindication, theophany, proclamation, reception, and ascension is outmoded for many today. Yet those who smear us who sing are full of balderdash and twaddle. We sing because we know ourselves to be sinners in the sight of God. We sing because we know ourselves to be justly deserving God’s displeasure. We sing because we know ourselves to be without hope except in God’s sovereign mercy. We sing because we have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of sinners. We sing because we have received and are resting upon Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel.

Don’t sneer at us who sing. Join us in our confession and sing with us the truths that express the great mystery of godliness, once hidden now revealed in Christ: Christ manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.

“He Ascended into Heaven and Is Seated”

posted by R. Fowler White

Taking up again this series of posts on the articles of the Apostles’ Creed, we focus this time on Article 6: He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.

To appreciate the riches of this article, we should go back in history, back to the beginning of creation to remember that, when God created man male and female, He gave them a home in a holy garden paradise at the top of His holy mountain. There, God would have lived together with our parents in beauty and bounty, in security and purity. After they sinned, however, God drove them from His mountain paradise and stationed angels to keep them from returning to His summit in their state of sin and death. From then on, the issue that has haunted dying sinners was, who will ascend the hill of the Lord? Especially when Israel arrived at Mt Sinai, the issue was, where is the sinless, never-dying man qualified to return to God’s holy presence on His holy mountain top? Even when Israel entered the land and arrived at earthly Mt Zion, the issue was still, where is that man qualified to ascend God’s holy mountain to live together with Him? All of OT history and prophecy was about the search for and the promises of that qualified Man to come. So, we should ask ourselves, have we found that Man yet? Are we even searching for Him? The good news of the NT is that that promised Man has arrived, that that glorified Man has returned to the summit of God’s holy mountain. In fact, following Scripture, that good news is the focus of the Creed in Article 6.

The article begins with the confession that Christ ascended into heaven. The previous articles of the Creed confess that the Eternal Son came from heaven to earth. In the sixth article, we confess even more: that the incarnate Eternal Son returned from humiliation on earth to exaltation in heaven. To grasp what the ascension is about, we should remember the picture of ascension in the order of tabernacle worship. Specifically, we should look back at the tabernacle and at the horizontal movement of the high priest from its outer court into its innermost court. His movement was a divinely designed picture of the qualified Man, the sinless and never-dying Man, ascending God’s holy mountain to return to His holy presence at the summit of His holy mountain. Thus, to watch Jesus ascend to heaven as the disciples did was to watch the incarnate Eternal Son ascend to the heavenly Holy of Holies to take up residence on heavenly Mt Zion in heavenly Jerusalem.

In fact, more than a simple return to heaven, His ascension tells us two other important facts. First, it tells us that Christ was being installed as the High Priest in the heavenly sanctuary. It’s vital to notice that Jesus fulfills His priestly office from heaven. Indeed, He does so because He is not of the earthly priesthood, which can only serve the earthly copy and shadow of the original heavenly sanctuary (Exod 25:40; cf. Heb 9:23-24). Christ serves only in the heavenly original, where the earthly priest could not. This is to our great advantage as sinners. As priest, Christ offered Himself once for all as a spotless sacrifice to God to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for us, intervening for our interest from His throne.

Second, Christ’s ascension tells us that He was being installed as King in heaven. The Father installed His resurrected Son as King of the nations, commanding sinners everywhere to repent and believe in Him as their only hope of salvation from the wrath to come. As King, He calls His chosen people out of the world, bringing them under His power while restraining and overcoming their enemies and then, at the last day, carrying out just retribution against all who neither know God nor obey His gospel. In short, Christ powerfully orders everything for His own glory and the well-being of His people. Thus, when we confess that Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, we declare that the Father has installed Christ as both the Priest and the King of His appointment.

We also confess in Article 6 of the Creed that Jesus Christ is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. By this witness we tell the world that we know where the (still) incarnate Christ now is. He is in the heavenly Holy of Holies, on the heavenly holy mountain top where the heavenly capital of the universe is. We might be inclined to ask, why does it matter where Jesus is now seated? Because His location at the Father’s right hand tells us and others that He occupies the seat of highest favor with God the Father, the place of supreme power and cosmic kingship, as the one and only Mediator between God and man. In the heavenly sanctuary upon heavenly Mt Zion, He is not only accessible to all who take refuge in Him; He is also powerful to lavish upon all who believe, anywhere in the world, all the benefits that He purchased for them.

In confessing that Jesus Christ has taken His place at the Father’s right hand, we note emphatically that He is seated. What does it matter not only where He is seated, but also that He is seated? Because His seated posture tells us that He has offered the last sacrifice. The many Levitical priests were continually offering the same ineffectual sacrifices, and they were always standing (Heb 10:11): there was no chair in the earthly tabernacle. Christ, however, has taken His seat, having offered the single, permanently powerful sacrifice. No longer standing, He is seated … He has taken His seat. He is thus a priest at rest because His work of sacrifice is finished. By the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all, sins are forgiven. Oh, to be sure, His work of intercession continues. Our great high priest is now in office, in session, to intercede for all who believe, pleading the merits of His sacrifice of obedience on earth to be applied to them, answering all the accusations against them, making sure they have peace of conscience despite their daily failings, welcoming them without hesitation to the throne of grace, and accepting who they are in Him and what they do for Him.

When we bear witness that Jesus Christ ascended into heaven and is seated at the Father’s right hand, we make known that there is hope for dying sinners who would live forever with God. That hope is in Jesus Christ, God the Son incarnate, the sinless, immortal, and glorified Man, who has returned to the summit of God’s holy mountain. In His life He was entirely faithful where we sinners are entirely unfaithful. In His death He bore the punishment we sinners justly deserve. On the third day He rose again from the dead, and forty days later He ascended from earth to heaven to take His seat at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Therefore, with one voice we gladly confess that in Christ alone we find the sinner’s only hope of salvation from the wrath to come.

We turn our attention to Article 7 in the Creed here.