“I believe … in the Holy Spirit”

posted by R. Fowler White

As we continue our series on the Apostles’ Creed, we come to Article 8 and confess that we believe in the Holy Spirit. As we do, we’re actually starting the third section of the Creed. The first section (Article 1) focused on the person and creating work of God the Father. The second section (Articles 2-7) focused on the person and saving work of God the Son. Now we come to the third section to focus on the person and work of God the Spirit.

Some describe the Holy Spirit as the “forgotten” Person of the Trinity. This is not, however, historically accurate. In fact, over the centuries, students and teachers of Scripture have made the Spirit the focus of much helpful attention. Still, with nearly 60% of Americans agreeing that “The Holy Spirit is a force but is not a personal being,” we should concede that the Spirit is the lesser known of the Three Persons. We also do well to recognize that The Nicene Creed (AD 325, 381, 589) perfected and expanded the wording of Article 8 by affirming, “And [I believe] in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, Who proceeds from the Father and the Son: Who together with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified: Who spoke by the prophets.” We’re not surprised, then, when catechisms and confessions from the Reformation era explained Article 8 of the Apostles’ Creed in light of the Nicene Creed. Our comments below will do the same.

Confessing our belief in the Holy Spirit, we bear witness that He is, together with God the Father and God the Son, true and eternal God. Proceeding from the Father and the Son, He is the Third Person of the Godhead. He was active in the work of creation, forming and filling the visible creation. He has been active in the work of salvation, making all things new, particularly God’s people, in and through Christ. In His ministry, He gives the definitive, conclusive testimony (witness) to the Father who sent the Son and to the Son sent by the Father. As the Spirit relates specifically to the Son, Scripture describes Him as constantly present in and with the incarnate Son, from womb (conception) through tomb (death) to throne (ascension). As such, the Spirit is designated as Paraklete, that is, as Divine Defense Counsel, Advocate, Chief Witness, Eyewitness, Character Witness to Christ, the Son of the Father. We must, accordingly, take care to receive the Spirit’s witness. To do otherwise is to blaspheme Him.

The Spirit’s ministry as Divine Witness has had two aspects: revelation and conviction. As minister of revelation, He is the One who has provided all Christ-glorifying revelation through the Prophets and Apostles, guiding them into all aspects of the truth as revealed in Jesus, disclosing to them the fullness of His person and work in His ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension. Because of this ministry of the Spirit, the church should be confident that the Scriptures are Spirit-taught words (1 Cor 2:13). He who is minister of revelation is also minister of conviction (John 16:8-10): He convicts the world of sin, on account of their unbelief and unrepentance; of righteousness, on account of the Son’s ascension to the Father’s throne; and of judgment, on account of the Son’s judgment of Satan.

The work of the Spirit goes beyond revelation and conviction too. In Scripture, we learn that, at creation God, by the Spirit and the word, overcame darkness and deep and made all the world into a veritable palace of the Majestic Creator on high. Then, through Moses, by the Spirit and the word, God overcame Egypt, made Israel a holy nation, and took up residence in the tabernacle as His holy dwelling place. Later, by the Spirit and the word, God overcame the Canaanites under Joshua and David, and had the first temple built under Solomon as His earthly holy house. In the present age, since His first coming, Christ, by the Spirit and the word, has been overcoming Satan’s kingdom and making His people into God’s earthly dwelling place in the Spirit. At His return Christ, by the Spirit and the word, will overcome death, and His people will thereafter reside forever with God in His eternal dwelling place. Clearly, from the beginning, the Spirit has bound Himself to the word, and, by that bond, God has brought and will bring beauty and bounty, security and purity to all the world.

There is one more point for us to bear in mind here about the Spirit in whom we believe. Because true faith is discerning faith, we who confess faith in the Spirit will test both speakers and listeners who claim to be of God (1 John 4:1-6). Not all speakers (4:1-3) or listeners (4:4-6) should affirm that they are of God. No, according to the Apostles, speakers and listeners who truly are of God are created by the Spirit of truth (1 Cor 2:6–3:4). For wherever the Spirit of truth has been at work, speakers and listeners make a common confession that is in keeping with the Apostles’ teaching now documented in Scripture. Preeminently, they confess that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Eternal Son incarnate, fully God and fully man, one person with two natures, human and divine. If, then, we would discern speakers and listeners who are of God, we will look for the work of the Spirit of truth evident in their common confession of the Christ of the Apostles’ gospel now documented in Scripture.

In Article 8 of the Apostles’ Creed, following Scripture, we confess, I believe … in the Holy Spirit. We do so bearing in mind that the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error are both present in this world. How will we know the one from the other? We will know the Holy Spirit of truth because His work is to give sinners new ears to hear the Apostles’ gospel of Christ and new mouths to confess the Christ of the Apostles’ gospel. What, then, will our confession be in these days of widespread confusion about the Holy Spirit? Let’s be sure not to answer in an offhanded, cavalier way.

Our attention turns to Article 9 of the Creed here.

“He Will Come to Judge”

posted by R. Fowler White

Continuing this series of posts on the Apostles’ Creed, we focus now on Article 7: from there—from the right hand of God the Father Almighty—He will come to judge the living and the dead. Just as we did with Article 6, it’s important to go back in history to get the most out of Article 7.

Remember the question that has haunted dying sinners since the fall: Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? In the liturgy of Leviticus, God provided Moses His answer to the question: only a man undefiled by sin and death is welcomed on His mountain. Thus God made known that the way to enter His presence undefiled was through the sacrifice and the priesthood that He required. Following God’s direction, Moses set up the sacrifices and the priesthood for the first old covenant worship service, and then he and Aaron were ceremonially cleansed to enter the Holy Place to meet with God and to intercede for the people. The drama of that first old covenant worship service was not over, however, when Moses and Aaron went into the Holy Place. No, the culmination of that service was when Moses and Aaron came out of the Holy Place to bless the people as the glory of the Lord appeared to them.

It is at that point that we engage with the seventh article of the Creed: Jesus our High Priest and King will emerge again from Heaven’s Holy of Holies, descending from His seat at His Father’s right hand. In other words, we confess what the Apostles heard when Christ ascended: This same Jesus, who has been taken … into heaven, will come back in the same way that you have seen him going into heaven (Acts 1:10). In the Creed, following Scripture, we confess His purpose in returning: He will come back to judge. As we know, depending on the context, the verb to judge can be negative, or positive, or both. Both is the Creed’s point. Christ’s purpose when He returns is to hand down His rulings, whether negative or positive. The Heidelberg Catechism, Question 52, makes this point well when it declares, He will cast all His and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, and He will take me and all His chosen ones to Himself into heavenly joy and glory. Here we can pick up again the events that unfolded back in Leviticus. After Moses and Aaron came out of the place of meeting, they pronounced God’s blessing on the people, and all the people saw the fiery glory of the Lord, and they let out shouts of joy and fell on their faces, overcome with awe. That was the positive result of Moses and Aaron’s return from the Holy of Holies. Yet that’s not all that happened. There was also the negative result in that first old covenant worship service: Aaron’s two oldest sons Nadab and Abihu decided that any priest could enter the Most Holy Place at any time and in any manner. In response, the fiery glory of the Lord came out and consumed them. When Moses and Aaron reemerged from the tabernacle, then, Israel saw God’s glory alright—not just in His stupefying splendor, but in His terrifying anger. Likewise, when Christ returns from His seat in the heavenly Holy of Holies to judge, all will see His glory. His return will bring comfort to everyone who trusts in Christ, who submitted Himself to God’s judgment in their place and removed all curse from them. To all others, who would enter God’s presence on their own at any time and in any manner, there will only be agony and anguish.

But there is more in Article 7: dead or alive, each and all will be judged by Christ. Notice that it is the living and the dead whom He will judge. To this effect the Apostle John recounts the words of Jesus in John 5:26-29: all people who have ever lived on earth will personally appear before Christ the Judge. By His power the bodies of all who have believed His gospel will be raised to honor and brought into conformity with His own glorious body. Likewise, the bodies of all who have disbelieved His gospel will be raised to dishonor, and their souls united with their bodies in which they formerly lived. All people will appear before His judgment seat to give an account of their thoughts, words, and deeds and to receive judgment according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil. Those who disbelieve Christ’s gospel and remain in their sins will be thrown into the lake of fire to suffer eternal punishment, both in body and soul, along with the devil and his angels, having been expelled from God’s gracious presence and from the marvelous fellowship with Christ and His angels. Those who repent of their sins and believe Christ’s gospel will enjoy full and final deliverance, hearing their vindication made known to all as Christ confesses their names before God His Father and His elect angels and wipes away all their tears and, for a gracious reward, brings them into possession of a glory beyond all that they can imagine.

Skeptics mock our confession. They focus on the present, ignore the past, and deny the future. They ask, “Where is the promise of his coming?” but their question is no innocent request for information. Rather their question is a mockery of the truth that God intervenes in this world. In all their vanity, skeptics deliberately and conveniently ignore His past interventions. Scripture documents how God intervened to create the first world and to destroy it with a flood, to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah with fire, to destroy Egypt with plagues, to destroy Canaan with the sword, and to destroy Jerusalem—not once, but twice—by invading armies. Because of God’s supernatural interventions, the inhabitants of all of these places either perished or were deported.

So don’t be shaken when skeptics mock your confession about Christ’s return. Contrary to what they say, God will intervene to destroy the present world with fire (2 Pet 3:4-10). And that last Day will not only be a Day of Destruction, but also a Day of Judgment. From His seat in the Holy of Holies in heaven, Christ will return to judge, and all will see His glory. Until that Day, we must bear witness of His return to judge. For all who would enter God’s presence on their own, there will only be unending agony and anguish. But for all who trust in Christ who submitted Himself to God’s judgment in their place and removed all the curse from them, there will be everlasting comfort and consolation. Even so, we pray, Come, Lord Jesus.

We reflect on Article 8 of the Creed here.

“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.

“The Third Day He Rose Again from the Dead”

posted by R. Fowler White

As we continue to work our way through the Apostles’ Creed, examining its articles in the light of Scripture, we come now to Article 5: The third day He rose again from the dead.

There is no doubt that this is what Scripture teaches. Moreover, this is what the church of Jesus Christ, following Scripture, has confessed throughout its history. That is, with Scripture, the true church continues to confess that Christ really and truly did rise from the dead, and in rising His soul was really and truly reunited with His body, inasmuch as the two had been separated at death. He really and truly did come out of His tomb in which He had been buried, despite the steps that the Roman guards had taken to make the tomb secure. He rose again the same Person, the same Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man—only now glorified! The same body, the one that had fallen victim to death and burial, rose again—only now it was a glorious body (Phil 3:21).

The particular phrase that the Creed uses to affirm Christ’s resurrection is noteworthy: He rose again. Elsewhere we read that He was raised again. What’s the difference? The Creed’s word choice puts an emphasis on Christ’s power to rise from the dead, to raise His body from the grave. In other words, the Creed bears witness that Christ rose again from the dead because Scripture teaches that, as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself (John 5:26). In this connection, we remember that Jesus had declared, speaking of His body: Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up in three days (John 2:19). He had also proclaimed: I have authority to lay down My life, and I have authority to take it up again (John 10:18).

It’s equally noteworthy that the Creed specifies that Jesus Christ rose again on the third day. The Apostles’ gospel (e.g., 1 Cor 15:4), to which the Creed bears witness, was (and is) not a novelty. The resurrection that they preached and documented was the NT fulfillment of the promises of God in the OT Scriptures. Moses, the Prophets after him, and the Psalms testified that the Christ would suffer and rise again from death on the third day. Strikingly, Scripture provides many pictures (foreshadowings) of resurrection, including birth from barrenness, return from exile, release from a death sentence, release from prison, deliverance from the waters of death, deliverance from thirst, hunger, sickness; deliverance from the sting of the viper, and the raising up of a fallen tabernacle. In the places where we find these themes, we find that life comes from death after three days, on the third day. The Apostles’ gospel, then, was the OT gospel. 

So what difference does Christ’s resurrection make? How does it benefit us? First, by His resurrection He has overcome death, so that believers share in the righteousness that He obtained for them by His death. In other words, through faith, God reckons to sinners Christ’s righteousness in exchange for our sins. By Christ’s resurrection, God our Judge declares: “Debt paid in full!” And not only that. By Christ’s resurrection our Divine Judge declares to us who believe: “Accepted as righteous in Christ; in Him you have all the righteousness I require.” Second, by His power we are raised up to live a new life of obedience to God. United to the resurrected Christ by faith, we have been raised from death in sins to a new life of seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Third, Christ’s bodily resurrection is to us believers God’s sure pledge of our own glorious bodily resurrection. Christ is the firstfruits of those who have died (1 Cor 15:20), the first one to have been raised from the dead to die no more. Christ is God’s down payment in guarantee of more to come, the assurance of a full harvest. For believers, then, their resurrection is as sure as Christ’s resurrection. Particularly as believers get older, the more they appreciate God’s pledge of their own resurrection, a pledge that holds true because Christ is the firstfruits of the full resurrection-harvest to come.

Of course, our pagan culture is flooded with skepticism of the miraculous, particularly about the resurrection of Christ. Yet we forget that the original skeptics of His resurrection were His first disciples. Some folks like to portray them as a gullible, superstitious group that simply took resurrection as a given. But that portrait is fake news. For example, the NT Gospel writers make a considerable effort to show their readers that Jesus’ earliest followers did not go to His tomb believing in His resurrection or presuming His resurrection. No, they went to His tomb with spices because they expected to find a decaying dead body there. There was no hint that they anticipated His resurrection. In fact, it was a surprise to them. Now don’t get me wrong: the resurrection of Jesus should not have been the surprise to His disciples that it was. After all, what they found at His tomb was exactly what He had predicted on at least six different occasions. In fact, what they found at the sepulchre was exactly what they had been told they would find and what they could and should have remembered and expected. But they did neither of these things. In truth, so-called “Doubting Thomas” turned out to represent, to some degree, all of Jesus’ earliest followers when he said: Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.

The point is, Jesus’ initial followers became convinced of His resurrection as God bore witness to them in word and deed and as they saw Him, heard Him, and touched Him (1 John 1:1-3). The first followers of Jesus became what they were not at first. They became eyewitnesses of His resurrection. This is why the message of the Apostles, documented in the Scriptures, is what it is. Of the resurrected Christ, the Apostles all ended up confessing with Thomas, My Lord and my God! Readers and hearers of Scripture, then, are not expected to be gullible. No, they are expected to take seriously what the historic church of Christ persists in confessing forthrightly with the Apostles’ Creed, following the Scriptures of the Prophets and the Apostles: the third day Jesus Christ rose again from the dead.

Our meditations turn to Article 6 of the Creed here.

“He Descended into Hell”

posted by R. Fowler White

It’s an understatement to say that the last phrase of Article 4 of the Apostles’ Creed—He descended into hell—has generated a lot of controversy. Because its appearance in the Creed came later than its other articles and because its meaning is open to question, some advocate for removing it from the Creed’s publication or, at the very least, for excluding it from the Creed’s public recitation. Those opinions deserve our attention, but they are not conclusive. For our purposes here we’ll take our point of departure from J. A. MacCulloch’s work, The Harrowing of Hell (1930). He provides a fair and reasonable basis for the article’s acceptance for the church’s continued consideration and recitation as follows: “Although the confessional use of the Descent doctrine was only sporadic and occasional before the eighth century, on the other hand the doctrine itself was mentioned repeatedly by the Fathers and in the religious literature of the early centuries.” So it remains appropriate for us to look more closely at the interpretation of the Creed’s words He descended into hell.

Even with repeated mention of the Descent, there remains no consensus on its interpretation. Early on, the received text of the Creed’s Descent clause was typically taken as a simple declaration that Christ, having humbled Himself to be crucified, dead, and buried, had also been consigned to the common ignominious place of the dead, namely, the grave (as distinguished from the place of suffering-beyond-the-grave, namely, hell). As time moved on, however, various other views of the Descent arose. Some believed that after His death Christ’s disembodied soul went to hell in order to complete what was lacking in His suffering on the cross. Others affirmed that His soul went to the place of waiting for disembodied souls (aka limbus patrum) in order to facilitate the transport of the souls of pre-Christ saints to heaven. Still others believed that Christ’s soul went to hell in order to achieve and announce His victory over it.

Strikingly, despite their variety, common to these views is the belief that between His death and His resurrection Christ’s disembodied soul relocated to a place other than and in addition to the heavenly paradise of God to which He referred on the cross (Luke 23:43, 46; cf. Matt 27:50). Furthermore, as we look into the attempts to justify this belief, we realize that basically they involve imposing dubious interpretations of Eph 4:8-10 and 1 Pet 3:18-20 onto the supposed chronology and theology of events related to Christ’s soul between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Suffice it to say here that neither Eph 4:8-10 nor 1 Pet 3:18-20 refers to a relocation of Christ’s soul to hell. To the contrary, the Ephesians text affirms His descent from heaven to earth for His incarnation, while the First Peter passage contemplates His ascension (not His descent), in which was proclaimed His victories over sin, death, and all the fallen angelic host. In short, Scripture provides no witness to the relocation of Christ’s soul after His death to any place other than the paradise of God in heaven. In fact, the Creed itself seems to point the way to a better understanding of its Descent clause. That clue appears when we notice the likeness between the second article and the words dealing with Christ’s suffering. Even as the second article presents distinguishable perspectives on Christ’s person in the two phrases His only Son and our Lord, so the words about His suffering present distinguishable perspectives in the two phrases was crucified, dead, and buried and He descended into hell. We can elaborate briefly by looking first to Scripture and then to the Westminster and Heidelberg catechisms.

Turning to the Prophets and Apostles, we find that they vividly narrate the incarnate Son’s suffering in both soul and body from Gethsemane to the grave. For example, Isaiah, cited by Peter (1 Pet 2:22-25), prophesied expressly about the anguish of soul and body that would arise in the Lord’s Servant as He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows (Isa 53:4), was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities (53:5), endured our chastisement (53:5), and bore the iniquities and sin of many (53:11-12). Isaiah saw that, despite His innocence, the Servant would be stricken for the transgression of the Lord’s people, enduring even the degradation of being cut off from the land of the living (53:8) and swallowed up into the belly of the grave (53:9). Indeed, the Prophet discerned that deepest misery would be His because it was the will of the Lord to crush Him and cause Him to suffer, and because the Lord imputed to Him the iniquity of us all (53:6). Isaiah thus envisioned the Lord’s righteous Servant voluntarily subjecting Himself to be for His many seed their guilt offering, their sin-bearing substitute, their surety (53:10-12). Fittingly, we find Matthew reporting Jesus’ words to His disciples in Gethsemane: “My soul is very sorrowful even to death.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Climactically, Matthew records Jesus’ dying words as those from David’s prophetic psalm about God’s royal Son who had put Himself in harm’s way for His people: About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46; Ps 22:1; cf. Heb 5:7).

Reading such words, we have to ask ourselves: what is Jesus’ lament if not the incarnate Son’s disclosure of the otherwise indiscernible truth that, on the tree (Deut 21:23), He had become a curse for us (Gal 3:13), that for our sake God had made Him to be sin who knew no sin (2 Cor 5:21)? Is His lament something other than His testimony to the gravest torment of a soul subjected to divine judgment, a torment compounding the sheer agony in a body brutalized by human hands? Are those words anything but His witness to the hellish suffering that He underwent in accord with divine foreordination and prophecy, while drinking the cup of God’s holy wrath against us sinners (Matt 26:39, 42) and bearing and feeling the crushing weight of God’s just anger against our iniquities imputed to Him? Reading this sampling of what the Prophets and Apostles tell us about Christ’s suffering, we realize that it is not the case that between His death and His resurrection His soul relocated to hell. Rather it is the case that, in God’s reckoning, when He laid our iniquities on His incarnate Son, He effectively relocated hell onto Christ Himself such that from Gethsemane to the grave His humiliation for sinners reached its nadir in both soul and body.

Compelled by Scripture texts like those above, we appreciate the help offered for our understanding of the Descent clause in the Reformed catechisms of Heidelberg and Westminster. Heidelberg instructs us why the Creed adds the clause He descended into hell in these words: “To assure me during attacks of deepest dread and temptation that Christ my Lord, by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, on the cross but also earlier, has delivered me from hellish anguish and torment” (Q & A 44). In a complementary fashion, Westminster takes us back to the earliest interpretation of the Creed’s most contested clause. After expounding Christ’s humiliation in His death in the Larger Catechism Q & A 49, we read in Q & A 50 that His “humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.” Taken together, these catechisms assist us to see in the Descent clause what Ursinus suggested in his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (p. 232): “the descent into hell in the Creed follows the burial of Christ, not because it was accomplished after his burial; but because it is an explanation of what precedes concerning his passion, death, and burial, lest something should be detracted from these.” In that light, many will find good reason to include and recite the words of the Descent clause. In them we confess that the benefits of Christ’s suffering for us sinners extend from the visible to the invisible, even from the least extreme to the most extreme torments, pains, anguish, and ignominy of both soul and body. Certainly, we recognize too with Olevianus (see his A Firm Foundation, p. 71) that “the further Christ humbled Himself for us in all His anguish, and the more dearly He paid for our salvation, the more firm our trust in the love of God and in the satisfaction of Jesus Christ becomes.”

We reflect on Article 5 of the Creed here.

“Crucified, Dead, and Buried”

Posted by R. Fowler White

Continuing our reflection on article four of the Apostles’ Creed, we examine what it means to confess faith in Jesus Christ crucified, dead, and buried.

In the ancient world crucifixion was believed to be an effective way to maintain law and order. The Romans reserved it for dangerous criminals, slaves, and the populations of foreign provinces. In the province of Judea, for example, it proved to be generally effective against resistance to Roman occupation. Applied as a form of execution, it was so frequent, and its details such common knowledge, that people in the first century were all too familiar with crucifixion. Despite its frequency—or maybe because of it—written descriptions of the act of crucifixion are rare. The more refined writers were hesitant to dwell long on an act so horrifying, brutal, and shameful. Reading the NT Gospel accounts, we realize that none of them goes beyond the barest minimum when they describe it. All that they say is they crucified Him. It is hard to describe a more cruel and unusual form of capital punishment, but we will have to try.

Imagine the shape of the cross: X, T, and were the most common. Imagine the height of the cross: ordinarily the victim’s feet were no more than two feet above the ground—to give wild beasts and scavenger dogs easy access to the dead body. Imagine the nails of the cross, the spikes used to impale the victim. Imagine the small wooden peg or block, often placed midway up the vertical post to prolong the victim’s agony by preventing his premature collapse.

Once impaled on the cross, the victim endured a seemingly endless cycle of pulling, pushing, and collapsing—pulling with his arms, pushing with his legs to keep his chest cavity open for breathing, then collapsing in exhaustion until the body’s need for oxygen demanded more pulling and pushing. The combination of flogging, blood loss, and shock from pain, all produced agony that could go on for days. The end ordinarily came from suffocation, or cardiac arrest, or blood loss. When there was reason to speed up death, the executioners would smash the victim’s legs. Death followed almost immediately, either from shock or from collapse that cut off breathing.

The shame of crucifixion compounded its pain. In fact, so intense was the combination of shame and pain that it was expressly prohibited that a Roman citizen be executed in this manner. Crucifixion was always public, at an intersection, in the theatre, or elsewhere on high ground. Victims were usually crucified naked to intensify the experience of humiliation, though Jewish sensitivities would have demanded that the victim wear a loincloth. More than nakedness, however, the act of raising the victim up off the ground on a cross was meant to make manifest the level of criminality and heinousness of his transgression. The cross itself was thus a visible symbol and physical embodiment of all that was morally shameful and aesthetically offensive, and crucifixion was referred to as “that most cruel and disgusting penalty.” As such, it is understatement to say that the crucifixion of the innocent, sinless Jesus was the most monstrously obscene act ever committed.

Here, we have to note that it was significant that Jesus was crucified instead of dying some other way. Death on a cross was cursed not only by human standards but also by God’s standard. Already by the first-century AD, victims of crucifixion were viewed in terms of Deut 21:22-23: he who is hanged on a tree is accursed by God. The form of Jesus’ death tells us that it was for lawbreakers that He endured the curse of God. His crucifixion was neither by chance, by accident, nor by the sole decision of Romans and Jews, but by God’s special providence and counsel (Acts 2:23). Christ had to be crucified to bear our curse and to share His blessing with us, to satisfy God’s justice and to free us from the curse. He had to be crucified to make peace for us with our offended, estranged Creator, to rescue sinners from bondage and misery by the payment of the price. Consequently, we must confess that Jesus Christ was crucified.

Confessing Jesus Christ crucified, we also confess Him dead, redundant to say so though it seems. Joseph of Arimathea, attended by Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James, took His dead body down from the cross and laid Him in a tomb. He had died in the sight of men—and also in the sight of God. He did not die of natural causes; nor did He die for His own sins, since He was without sin. The death He died was for our sins. He laid down His life as an offering for sin, as the sinless Substitute, putting Himself in harm’s way for His people, for His sheep, for His bride. He took the punishment to which God had sentenced sinners, and, as a result, He satisfied God’s displeasure against them. The death He died was according to the Scriptures. We confess, therefore, Jesus Christ dead.

We also confess Jesus Christ buried. His body was placed in a tomb, a grave. And again we wonder, as perfunctory as it sounds, why would Scripture and the Creed give such prominence to His burial? Because, if satisfaction for our sins came in no other way than by the death of the Son of God, we must have proof of His death. It was burial of His body, together with the women’s determination to anoint His buried body with spices and ointments, that proved the death of His body. Thus, the incarnate Son of God really and truly died, and His burial was the certificate of His death.

In the words of the Creed, then, we confess Jesus Christ crucified, dead, and buried: three stark words bearing witness to the horror, brutality, and debasement of His humiliation.

We consider the last phrase of Article 4 in the Creed here.

“Suffered under Pontius Pilate”

Posted by R. Fowler White

We turn here to article four of the Apostles’ Creed, in which we confess our faith in Jesus Christ, who suffered under Pontius Pilate. Three times Pilate pronounced Jesus innocent of all charges against Him, yet Pilate had the authority to release an innocent man or to have him crucified. He was the one human being who had the most to do with Jesus’ crucifixion. He chose the latter to preserve his political career. In the Gospel of Matthew (ch. 27) the Evangelist gives a terse but vivid portrayal of Jesus as He suffered under Pilate and the soldiers in his charge. The details of our Lord’s suffering before He suffered on the cross are expressed in eight brief, heartbreaking statements. They provide a disturbing picture of unspeakable atrocity and unbearably sadistic torture. For they show us that under Pilate the King of Glory was in the hands of angry sinners. 

Despite Governor Pilate’s threefold finding of innocence, the official process of Jesus’ execution by crucifixion began. Now, for the first time, the Roman military had Jesus, the royal wannabe (as they saw Him), in their hands. They will proceed to act out a mock ceremony of coronation, mixing brutality with sarcastic barracks humor. Since Jesus was on His way to execution, nothing will curb their enjoyment of this opportunity to humiliate this King of the Jews, this ludicrous example of a Jew who, as they saw it, had dared to challenge the world’s super power. Like no one else, they would see to it that this one suffered under Pontius Pilate. Merciless soldiers were never more cruel or crude than they were with the King of Glory. 

Faced with the outcry of the unruly crowd in Jerusalem, Pilate caved in and decided to punish Jesus by having Him flogged in anticipation of crucifixion. So, first, they tore off the outer garments and undergarments of Jesus. Stripped of clothing, He endured the shame of public nakedness that Jewish persons in antiquity earnestly sought to avoid. Naked, He was most likely tied to a post or pillar with His hands secured tightly above Him; if not in that position, thrown to the ground would have worked too. Next, the military guards took their positions standing on either side of Him, brandishing the whip(s) made from cords of leather, with pieces of metal and bone braided into the leather strands. Then they flogged Him, repeatedly lashing his back, his chest, or both, likely leaving strips of flesh hanging from His wounds, perhaps exposing even bones or organs. While the Jews only allowed thirty-nine lashes, the Romans had no such limit. This gruesome assault was designed, if not to kill Jesus, at least to weaken His overall constitution before He was nailed to the cross, shortening the time it would take Him to die there.

The flogging left Jesus a pathetic sight: His appearance severely altered, His form marred beyond easy recognition, barely able to stand or walk, and certainly humanly powerless to resist. Putting His garments back on Him, the soldiers took Jesus into Pilate’s official residence and the military barracks housed there, and they gathered the whole battalion before Him. There stood a company of the 600 men normally stationed in Jerusalem at the fortress on the Temple Mount, reinforced by troops who accompanied Pilate to the Passover feast in case they were needed for riot control. They had Jesus to themselves inside their barracks, and it was time for a little macabre theater. Their mocking coronation play began, each new action a parody of a king’s regalia.

After they again stripped His garments off, leaving Him naked, the staring, chuckling battalion put a loose robe (a reddish-purple outer garment worn by soldiers and travelers) on Him, pretending He was a royal warrior. Arrayed in knockoff royal regalia, He needed a crown. After all, those who held national office wore crowns as a sign of their exalted status. The Roman victor’s crown was a bent twig or perhaps two twigs tied together. Often a single wreath of grass or one made of flowers and leaves was used to adorn the brow of the wearer. So, continuing their little coronation charade, the soldiers crowned Him with a crown all right. In their contemptuous, sadistic ridicule, they designed a crown of thorns to puncture and scrape His forehead and scalp. This was no sign of exalted standing. It was a derisive imitation of the crown worn by Rome’s rulers, a sign of utter disdain.

But their parody was not done yet. What else did a king need but a scepter, a monarch’s symbol of his authority and power? So, they placed a scepter in His right hand: in fact, an imitation of a scepter, a bamboo cane often used in military floggings. And still the ceremony for their cartoon king was not complete. It remained for them to show Him what homage they owed Him. They knelt before Him and mocked Him, pretending to recognize Jesus’ royal majesty and throwing in His face that sneering taunt, King of the Jews. Kneeling before Him was not enough, however: they spat on Him. Nothing of the expected kiss of homage (e.g., Ps 2:12) for this king, these soldiers repeated the insult that Jewish leaders had inflicted on Him earlier. And still the abuse continued as they ripped the fake scepter from His hand and beat Him about the head with it, every blow driving the thorns of His crown more deeply, more painfully into His forehead and scalp. Having shown Him what homage they owed Him, the torture of their coronation play was over. They stripped Him of His royal regalia, dressed Him again in His own garments, and led Him away to be crucified.

Ordinarily, as the person condemned to execution by crucifixion, Jesus would Himself have had to carry the thirty- to forty-pound horizontal beam of the cross on which He was to be nailed out to the site where the upright stake stood. But it was physically impossible for Him to do so. So, to carry the beam, the soldiers pressed into service Simon from Cyrene (roughly modern Libya), probably a Jewish pilgrim who had travelled to Jerusalem for Passover. Onward they would walk, until they arrived at the site on Calvary where the upright stake stood.

Thus do we confess Jesus Christ … suffered under Pontius Pilate.

We take up the second phrase of Article 4 in the Creed here.

“Conceived by the Holy Spirit and Born of the Virgin Mary”

Posted by R. Fowler White

Having focused in the second article of the Apostles’ Creed on Christ’s relation as God the Son to God the Father and on His relation as Lord to believing sinners, we turn next to the third article and the events that resulted in His incarnation. What was required of the eternal Son of glory whom the Father sent from heaven to earth? The Creed affirms that, for our sakes, He was required to humble Himself in incarnation through conception and birth. That being the case, we learn that His nativity began His earthly humiliation, and the Creed summarizes that nativity in two phrases.

Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit. The Son was pleased to humble Himself in incarnation through conception. Though from all eternity God the Son had been in the presence of God the Father and God the Spirit, He emptied Himself, poured Himself out, made Himself of no reputation, condescending to be made in human likeness and fashioned as a man. Pleased to take on human flesh, He did so when the fullness of time had come, when all the events of history that had to occur for His arrival on earth had occurred, just as the OT prophets had predicted. In fact, before His mother and His adoptive father would come together in marital union, it would become obvious that she was with child. Yet, because Mary and Joseph were chaste before their marriage, it would be revealed that His conception as to His human nature was not just ordinary conception, but conception that could not have been other than by the power of God the Holy Spirit, such power as preserved Him from sin’s defilement throughout His gestation in His mother’s womb. For this reason, we Christians confess Him to be the holy Child, the Son of God, in the unique sense of the incarnate Son.

In due course, the Child conceived by the Holy Spirit became the Child born of the virgin Mary. We can only marvel at the truth condensed here in the Creed’s brief phrasing. Though He was the glorious eternal Son, He was born of a young virgin woman, thus taking part in all human properties, except sin, through His mother. Just as His conception was anything but ordinary, so we know that His birth was also: born of a virgin, born without a man. The commissioned Son, in taking on human flesh, was not only made and formed in woman; He was of her, of her flesh and blood.

Knowing as the Apostles did that Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary, they proclaimed Him to us as the Word of Life who was from the beginning with the Father (1 John 1:1-2; John 1:1-2), the eternally preexistent Son of the Father, now one Person with two natures. The facts of His nativity are among the reasons they could document for us and preach to us the audible words of His that they had witnessed with their own ears; the visible deeds of His that they had witnessed and had looked upon with their own eyes; the tangible flesh-and-blood physicality of His body, before and after His death and resurrection, that they had witnessed with our own hands. The Apostles’ references to their ears hearing, their eyes seeing, and their hands touching can hardly be explained as anything other than first-hand, empirical, sensory experiences. As such, their confession stands in stark contrast with that of the world, ancient and modern. The world, then and now, either denies that knowing God is possible or claims to know God through objects made with hands or concepts fabricated in our imaginations (as in “God is a concept by which we measure our pain” [John Lennon]). By contrast, the Apostles saw and heard and touched the Source of true knowledge of God, and they proclaimed that revealed knowledge as morally binding on all who read or hear them.

With the Creed, therefore, we confess that Jesus Christ was God with God, God the Word, God the Son who has permanently taken to Himself sinless human nature with all its properties, and will remain forevermore one Person with two natures, the God-man, fully God and fully man. Let’s be careful not to underestimate these affirmations concerning Christ’s conception and birth. To deny that Jesus of Bethlehem is God who became man is not merely to reject the Creed. It is to reject the Christ of the authentic gospel of Scripture; it is to exchange the truth for a lie.

We consider the first clause of Article 4 of the Creed here.

“Jesus Christ, His only [begotten] Son, our Lord”

Posted by R. Fowler White

Who is Jesus Christ? There are many voices with many answers to that question. Some pretend not to care about the answer at all. Even in the “evangelical” world there are voices leading folks away from the historic confession of Christ. They deny the necessity of His role in salvation, or His death as a substitute, or His obedience in both life and death. Not only do challenges come from among professing Christians, there are also challenges from the spread of Islam, the collapsing morality of Western culture, and the rise of those who have no religious affiliation at all. Our post-Christian era is a time of confusion and pluralism. These realities push us to make sure we’re equipped with clarity and conviction regarding who Jesus Christ is. With that in mind, we turn for help to the Apostles’ Creed, article two, where we confess our faith in Jesus Christ. Who, then, is Jesus Christ?

Following Scripture, the first part of the Creed’s answer is, of course, that He is Jesus. Heaven itself mandated that name for the eternal Son of God who became man. Messengers from heaven’s court told His mother Mary and His adoptive father Joseph to name Him Jesus. When we read that name, we do well to think Yeshua, or even better Joshua, meaning “Yahweh saves.” We remember that after Moses died God appointed Joshua to bring Israel into the Promised Land and to enforce God’s law in Canaan. Despite partial victories in Canaan, Joshua secured neither the nation’s obedience to God nor their rest in the Land because he was powerless to save them from their sins. Yet when the eternal Son became man, the Angel Gabriel proclaimed that Jesus, this new Joshua, would succeed where the old Joshua had failed: He will save His people from their sins (Matt 1:21). Conceived by the Spirit, filled with the Spirit, equipped with the full armor of God, Jesus went into spiritual combat for our souls against the devil, the powers of this dark world, and the spiritual forces of evil. As He delivers people from disease and even death, we learn that He is able to save from sin’s penalty, power, and presence. By His obedience in life and in death, Jesus did what Joshua could not do: He satisfied the demands of God’s law and saved His people from their sins. This new Joshua is the Savior who showed Himself to be God-with-us who alone redeems His people from all their iniquities (Ps 130:8).

We confess that this Jesus is also Christ, the Anointed One, the one and only Mediator, fulfilling all three of the Mediator’s offices. He is Prophet: because we’re ignorant by nature, by His word and Spirit, Christ as Prophet reveals to us God’s will for our salvation (see. e.g., Heb 1:1-2). He is Priest: because we’re guilty of breaking God’s law, Christ as Priest offered Himself up, once and for all, to pay the debt we owe for our sin (Heb 9:14) and to reconcile us sinners to God (Col 1:20). And He now always lives to pray for us (Heb 7:25). He is King: because we’re powerless against our enemies, Christ gathers us to Himself (Acts 15:14-16), rules and defends us (Ps 110:3), and restrains and conquers all enemies, His and ours (1 Cor 15:25).

We also confess that Jesus Christ is His only [begotten] Son. His Son: whose Son? The Son of the Father. The Son, before He was sent, born, or given the name Jesus, was a Person in the Godhead, indeed a Person distinct from the Father (and the Spirit). Yet there was (is) harmony between Them. God the Father determined to send God the Son, and the Son agreed to be sent by the Father to fulfill the Greatest Commission of all. Once incarnate, the Son declared, I have come down from heaven … And this is the will of Him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that He has given me, but raise it up on the last day (John 6:38-40). Thus we confess Jesus Christ, His only [begotten] Son. These simple words take us into the background of the Son’s coming from eternity into history. Whether our translations of the Creed include or exclude the word begotten, the point of the Creed’s original terms is that the Son is without beginning, is not a creature, is not made, shaped, fashioned, formed, or adopted. He is unmade, unbegun, uncreated. The Son simply has been from eternity. He was in the beginning, as the Father was and as the Spirit was in the beginning.

Moreover, we confess that Jesus Christ is our Lord. This confession we make only by the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3b). In the ancient world, to confess someone as Lord was to acclaim that one’s majesty and to swear absolute allegiance to that one as our royal Deity, as our Savior and Judge. Among God’s covenant people, the one called Lord was the God of the patriarchs, Yahweh, I AM. To confess “Jesus is Lord,” then, is to confess “Jesus the Crucified is, by His resurrection and enthronement, Lord of all from whom, through whom, and to whom are all things.” In the NT world, this confession was shocking, for Jesus had endured capital punishment at the behest of Jewish and Roman authorities. Nonetheless, our confession, worked in us by the Spirit, is nothing less than a triumphant acclamation of Jesus Christ’s exaltation over a hostile world.

Further, we confess that He is our Lord. Confession of Jesus’ lordship is a two-sided coin. It’s a declaration not only of who Jesus is, but also of who we are. All who confess with their mouths and believe in their hearts that Jesus Christ is our Lord belong to Him as slaves whom He redeemed from bondage with His blood. That being the case, Jesus takes responsibility for us believers as our Lord, and He is the authority to whom we believers answer and from whom we believers learn what to believe and how to behave. To confess Jesus is Lord is, as one commentator has put it, a declaration … of personal devotion and commitment that is part and parcel of a Christ-centered worship and lifestyle. Therefore, to confess that Jesus is our Lord is to set ourselves apart from all others.

In our post-Christian era of confusion and pluralism, the Apostles’ Creed has us Christians confessing the truth that the Holy Spirit speaks in Scripture: Jesus Christ is His only [begotten] Son, our Lord. To confess these truths is to declare that we’re under the care of Him who is our Lord and our God, the One to whom we answer, the One on whom the Father bestowed the name that is above every name (Phil 2:10).

Our reflection turns to Article 3 of the Creed here.

Christ’s Family Tree in Matt 1:6b-17

Posted by R. Fowler White

In my previous post about Christ’s family tree from Abraham to David, we noticed that the tree was an amalgamation of Israelite and Gentile branches. Now we turn to the branches from King David through the exile to Christ Himself (Matt 1:6b-17), and once again we realize that this is no ordinary list of names. These branches carry the history of not just a nation but also a royal lineage, both reeling from the travesty of David’s sins with the wife of Uriah and against Uriah himself. Having laid bare the root of Israel’s division into ten northern tribes and two southern tribes, Matthew would show us again how God’s grace overruled the moral chaos in and among His people to keep the line of Christ alive.

The Evangelist opens this segment of the family tree by casting a knowing glance toward King David’s affair with the woman-whose-name-shall-not-be-mentioned. She was the wife of the faithful and elite Gentile warrior Uriah, whom David conspired to get killed in an effort to cover up his tryst. The effects of David’s sins on his family and on the nation of Israel were catastrophic. We’d prefer to remember David as a war hero and conquering king, but the Evangelist pushes us to face the reality of who Christ’s ancestors really were and what they really did.

Matthew wants us mindful of how David yielded to sexual indulgence and excessive ambition … how he so badly mismanaged the raising of his children that he sired not only insurrectionists but an incestuous sex offender. Later in life, David was presiding over the nation when it collapsed, and he was responsible for his family when it fell apart. Embedded in the names of 1:6b-11 we find the conflict among his sons and the revolt they led against him. We recall too the revolt of the ten northern tribes of the twelve that made up the nation. Do we remember just how bitter the fruit of David’s sins was not only in his family’s history but in the whole nation’s history? Yet the fruit here is not only bitter. As we turn from King David to his descendants, the names in Matthew’s genealogy remind us how God brought hope to the nation: hope in the midst of failure during the divided kingdom and during the southern kingdom’s final years.

For Matthew, it seems, this hope-amidst-failure was epitomized in David’s son Solomon himself, whose divided heart led to a divided nation and bore a spiritually divided lineage. We track these divisions in the four royal father-son combinations that Matthew mentions after his brief glance at Solomon. We’re to remember that bad father Rehoboam begat bad son Abijah, and bad father Abijah begat good son Asa. Then good father Asa begat good son Jehoshaphat, while good father Jehoshaphat begat bad son Joram. Clearly, Solomon’s divided heart begat a divided lineage. And as we reach the final branch in Christ’s pre-exilic family tree, we stumble on Jeconiah and his brothers. Remember them? No? No, not so much. They’re David’s descendants who were taken prisoner by Nebuchadnezzar, enduring the shame of being the last royal family of Judah before the exile. So, what was going on among Christ’s ancestors from Solomon to Jeconiah and his brothers? Despite bad royal seed, God raised up good royal seed and, in the midst of failure, He was giving hope. Though King David’s sins wrecked the purity and peace of his family, his descendants, and his nation, God’s grace was finally irresistible, preserving the line of the Messiah.

There’s one last segment of Christ’s family tree for Matthew to cover: he walks us from the exile to Christ’s birth in 1:12-17. Having given us three selective groups of fourteen generations to aid our memories, Matthew informs us that even through the deportation God preserved the line of Christ. Made obscure by the exile, only two names in the final group stand out. The first mentioned, Zerubbabel, was heir to David’s throne and governor of Judah after the return from exile. Then we reach the last name, that of Joseph, only to notice that once more Matthew departs from the standard genealogy formula and recounts a most extraordinary event. Matthew states only that Mary was Christ’s mother. Wait. What? Though Joseph is the last natural branch that links Jesus to David, Matthew indicates that he was not Jesus’ biological father. How, then, was Joseph a link between David and Jesus? The facts of how Joseph got into Jesus’ genealogy may rattle our cages.

On the authority of Matthew’s account, we learn that it was through the power of the Holy Spirit that Mary became the mother of Jesus, and it was therefore not through ordinary biology but through adoption that Joseph, a son of David, became the father of Jesus and Jesus the son of David. Furthermore, however, Matthew would have us reckon with the world-altering fact that Jesus, conceived in Mary by the Holy Spirit, is truly David’s God as much as He is truly David’s son! He is the eternal Son of God in the flesh, God-with-us, Immanuel! And it was Heaven that mandated that His parents give Him the name Jesus because He had come to save sinners from their sins!

Christ’s family tree is no mere registry of names, is it? No, these names carry indelible memories of God’s power in His grace to overcome the sin that destroys both individuals and nations. Is it not transparent from this genealogy, then, that we must confess on bended knee that God, from all eternity, did—by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will—freely and unchangeably ordain whatever comes to pass? Moreover, must we not confess that He was pleased, in His eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, His only begotten Son, to be the mediator between God and man? Knowing Christ’s family tree as Matthew has given it to us, let us be sure to confess Him as the God-man, son of David and son of Abraham, who came to save us sinners from our sins.

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