“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.

“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.

A Point to Ponder on 1 Peter 5:6-7

Posted by R. Fowler White

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:6-7 ESV)

“Casting one’s cares on God is a recognition of God’s monopoly on justice as well as a deep-seated confession of God’s power to accomplish his purposes. It is an enacted credo.”

— Joel B. Green, 1 Peter (Eerdmans, 2007), 179.

Eschatology Outlines: No. 7G Interpreting Rev 20:11–21:8

Posted by R. Fowler White

The visions of Rev 20:11–21:8 are the last set of visions that we’ll examine in the light of the themes of “battle and building.” Starting off, let’s notice why we should treat the vision sequence in 20:11–21:8 as a unit.

1. The unified picture in 20:11–21:8. Following the fiery destruction of the nations and the devil in 20:9-10 and the desolation of the present creation in 20:11b (cf. 6:12-17; 16:17-21; 21:1), we’re told in 20:12-13 (cf. 11:18) that those once dead were standing (20:12), having been released from their burial sites for judgment (20:13-14a). Introduced after the present heavens and earth disappear in 20:11b, the woe of the unrighteous, whose names were not in the book of life, is underlined in both 20:15 and 21:8. Introduced after the new heavens and earth appear in 21:1a, the weal of the righteous, whose names were in the book of life (21:27; 3:12), is highlighted in 21:2-7. Seeing, then, both the resurrection and the judgment of all in 20:11–21:8, the visions form a unified picture of the heavenly court’s final session in which the Divine Judge resurrects and judges all the dead. With that scene in mind, we can summarize how the combat and construction themes help us understand what’s going on in 20:11–21:8.

2. Victory over our last enemy. First, the emptying of all burial sites (natural or supernatural) in 20:13 signals the final overthrow of bodily death. Both the unrighteous and the righteous share in that victory. Yet for the unrighteous, that victory is no victory at all because it’s as empty as their grave: ironically, it issues in a death worse than bodily death. Having no share in the first resurrection (20:5), they emerge from their tombs only to be thrown into the lake of fire where the second death will forever have power over them (20:15; 21:8). By contrast, for the righteous, their victory over bodily death is as full as it is final. Full because, having taken part in the first resurrection, the second death has no power over them; final because they will abide forever in their eternal home with their God in the new creation, never to suffer death again (21:4). Only the righteous, then, will truly have title to proclaim, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? (1 Cor 15:54b-55a).

3. Our final residence with our God is a temple. Second, with the victory theme in clear view, the building theme is expected to shine through in the consequences that follow not only death’s defeat in 20:11-15 but the defeat of the Gog-Magog enemies in 20:7-10. The pattern we saw in 20:1-6 appears again in 20:7–21:8, and the pattern in 20:7–21:8 parallels the pattern in Ezek 38-48. The OT prophet had revealed God’s establishment of the new temple-city in the new paradisal land following His defeat of Gog-Magog. We already know that when the saints shared in the victory of the second death, their first resurrection announced their spiritual re-formation as the kingdom and beloved city (20:4, 6, 9). So, when we reach 21:1ff., we know that the saints have now shared in the victory over bodily death and that the promise Christ made in 3:12 is now to be fulfilled. He had said of the victorious saint that at His coming (cf. 3:11) I shall make him a pillar in the temple of my God … and I shall write upon him … the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from heaven. So, when the saints share in the victory over bodily death, the holy city image reappears in 21:2, 10. In fact, John describes the new city in 21:3 as the dwelling place (i.e., tabernacle) of God. Seeing these images side by side, we recognize that the saints’ presentation as the city-tabernacle in 21:2-3 (cf. 21:9-10) is the building episode that we expected to follow the Divine Warrior’s victory over His last enemy. Presumably, then, the new Jerusalem that appears in chap. 21 after Christ’s return in 20:9-11 is the temple-city that He promised to build using his saints as living stones, indeed, stones resurrected from physical death! Even the eternal heavens and earth should also be understood in the light of the temple building theme since John calls attention to the absence of all that is unclean from that final residence of God and His people (21:27; cf. holy, 21:3). All in all, then, not only do the saints, as living temple stones, make the lasting city holy (21:3), but the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple (21:22). Everything about the final residence is temple, a holy house built to the glory of God with man!

4. Conclusion. As we reflect on the contents of the visions in Rev 20:11–21:8, the “battle, then building” themes help us to see that the (second) resurrection constitutes the Divine Judge’s victory over death, while the saints’ resurrection and the creation’s restoration constitute the twofold building project that follows the victory over humanity’s last enemy, death. In all of this, it’s not hard to see that John has framed the Apostles’ teaching about Christ’s redemptive work at His return so that it conforms to the theology of “victory, then house building.” What is more, we see how much of a debt John owed to his OT heritage, a heritage that he embraced no doubt to inspire our confidence in our Lord Christ’s purpose and power both to triumph over His and our enemies and to establish His holy habitation with His holy people.

Eschatology Outlines: No. 8 Final Thoughts

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.

Eschatology Outlines: No. 7F Interpreting Rev 20:7-10

Posted by R. Fowler White

As I understand it, the vision in Rev 20:7-10 depicts the Divine Warrior’s age-ending victory over Satan-led nations who were threatening God’s kingdom-temple with desolation after they had turned His creation into an abomination of desolation. Let’s see if we can shed light in particular on the meaning of John’s depiction of that kingdom-temple as the camp of God’s people, the city he loves (NIV; cf. the encampment of the saints, the beloved city [CSB]) in 20:9.

1. Parallels to Ezek 38–39. Like 20:4-6, the vision in 20:7-10 is shaped by chapters from Ezekiel where we find a group of visions that reflects the OT pattern of “combat, then construction” that we’ve mentioned before. We can be sure that John has adapted Ezekiel’s visions of God’s victory over the chaos-causing nations because in 20:8-9 he explicitly mentions the Gog-Magog passage in Ezek 3839. In fact, in Rev 20 as in Ezek 3839, the Divine Warrior intervenes in the conflict with His customary weapon of theophanic fire to destroy those who attack the city of God (Rev 20:9; Ezek 38:22; 39:6, 9-10; cf. Ps 46:9; 76:3).

2. Camp, city, and saints. After the fiery destruction of the nations and the devil in 20:9-10 and the desolation of the present creation in 20:11 (cf. 6:12-17; 16:17-21; 21:1), we expect, following biblical patterns, to read about an episode of cosmic (re)construction in the visions that follow 20:7-10. And, in fact, that’s what we find. The theme of construction-after-victorious-combat clearly helps us understand what we read in 20:11–21:8 (we’ll explore that point in a subsequent post). Yet, interestingly, while we expect to find a building project in the visions after 20:7-10, we also see a building project within the vision of 20:7-10 itself. John sets before us the camp of the saints, the city God loves in 20:9 (NIV; cf. CSB). When he describes the camp of the saints using the additional terms the beloved city, his description links the saints with the four-square configuration of Israel’s camp in the wilderness (see, e.g., Num 2) and with the city of God that was represented in the tabernacle and the temple (Ps 27:4-6; Isa 4:5-6; Ezek 40:2–42:20). Described as the camp that is the city, the saints are an extraordinary sight to behold: they are God’s holy protectorate that has itself become the tabernacle-temple-city through Christ, the greater Moses and the greater Solomon. We get confirmation of this identification from another parallel to Ezek 3637.

3. A dwelling place for God’s Spirit. John’s presentation of the saints in 20:9 forms a really striking parallel to Ezekiel’s vision of Israel in Ezek 37:26-28. There we learn that, in the day when the Spirit rebuilds Israel’s house (37:11) by spiritual resurrection (37:1-14; cf. 36:27), that house will be the very dwelling place (Heb. mishkan, “tabernacle”) of God. No doubt this will be the case because, as we see in 36:27; 37:9-10, 14, the house will itself have become a sanctuary for God’s Spirit. Furthermore, according to Ezek 38–39 (especially 39:29), it is these very Spirit-indwelt residents of God’s dwelling place who will prove to be indestructible in the day of the nations’ final assault in Rev 20:7-10.

4. Parallels in the NT. In light of the parallels in Ezek 36–39, we can say the visions of 20:4-10 depict the saints as the kingdom-temple-camp-city built by Christ after His capture of the dragon in 20:1-3. The saints are nothing less than the blessed kingdom-temple built by the victorious Lamb in 20:4-6 and the beloved camp-city defended by the Divine Warrior in 20:7-10. What makes John’s visions all the more compelling is that their teaching is not at all isolated from the rest of Revelation or the NT. We’ve already seen the theology at the heart of Rev 1:5-6; 5:9-10; 12:10-12; 14:1-4 (with John 2:19-22; 5:24-29). Yet the parallel to Ezek 3637 shows up again in the broader NT when Paul and John both refer to those chapters in other contexts. Paul describes the church as the new covenant temple in 2 Cor 6:16, citing Ezek 37:27. John recounts Jesus’ teaching on the new birth in John 3:5-8, alluding to Ezek 36:25-27; 37:1-14. Then, while reviewing Jesus’ post-resurrection words and deeds and specifically His breathing (of the Spirit) on the Eleven in John 20:22, John touches on Ezek 37:9 (cf. Gen 2:7). With more space and time, we could show in detail how the theology of the camp of God’s people, the city he loves in Rev 20:9 is consistent with Paul’s and Peter’s presentation of the church in 1 Cor 3:16; 6:19-20; Eph 2:20-22; and 1 Pet 2:4-9 as a spiritual house for God in the Spirit.

5. Conclusion. We’ll close these comments on Rev 20:7-10 by stressing the power of John’s vision there. Like his OT forebears, Ezekiel in particular, John found in the ancient “battle and building” themes a theological prism through which he could make known to us the dynamics at work in our experience as the church militant between the first and second comings of Christ. By knowing and pondering those dynamics, our longing to see the final manifestation of Christ’s power in the devil’s death and the nations’ vanquishment and in the establishment of our eternal residence with God only grows stronger.

Eschatology Outlines: No. 7G Interpreting Rev 20:11–21:8

Eschatology Outlines: No. 7E More on Interpreting Rev 20:4-6

Posted by R. Fowler White

As I suggested in a previous post, the vision of Rev 20:4-6 concerns that session of the heavenly council of God in which authorization is issued to avenge the blood of the martyred saints whom Christ, with the living saints, had built into God’s kingdom-house of priests through their participation in the first resurrection. Let’s narrow our focus in this post by looking in some detail at John’s description of the saints’ worship, name-bearing, first resurrection, and reign in 20:4-6.

1. Background. Before we get to 20:4-6, let’s recall that in 1:5-6 and 5:9-10 John implicitly compares the Lamb’s redemptive work for the church to God’s victory over Egypt and His subsequent constitution of Israel (with her tabernacle) as His kingdom-dwelling place. Then, in 5:5 the Lamb’s redemptive victory becomes the victory of a new David, that lion-warrior of Judah who was given rest from his enemies before turning his attention to building the Lord’s temple-house. Finally, in the Divine Warrior victory song of 12:10-12, saints are described as those who have obtained victory over their draconic accuser on account of the blood of the true Lamb (12:11), whose blood, unlike that of the first Passover lamb, secures the release of God’s people from their sins. Thus, when in Rev 1, 5, and 12 John invokes the redemptions of Israel under Moses and David to describe the church’s experience, the point we should not miss is his willingness to employ the battle and building themes of the OT to explain the significance of the church’s redemption through Christ’s work. With this background, we have good reason to expect these same themes will help us clarify the interpretation of 20:4-6, especially since that vision follows a vision of divine victory over the dragon in 20:1-3.

2. Worship and name-bearing. So, what can we say about the saints’ worship and name-bearing in 20:4? We agree with those who see those activities as issues that led to the saints’ martyrdom. Probing more deeply, it’s interesting to notice that John’s description here connects back to these saints’ participation in the new exodus and their re-creation as the Lamb’s kingdom. The connection comes to light in Rev 14:1-4. There, John links worship and name-bearing with redemption by the Lamb (14:3-4) by recalling the lyrics of the Divine Warrior victory song in 5:9. The word redeemed (by the Lamb) also reminds us of the victory lyric in 12:11, compelling us again to connect the saints’ redemption with Israel’s exodus. To speak of the saints’ worship and name-bearing, then, is to speak of their participation in the new, Messianic exodus and of their reconstitution as Messiah’s kingdom.

3. Parallels to Ezek 36-37. Coming to the saints’ participation in the first resurrection and their reign as the kingdom of priests, let’s consider briefly the parallels between 20:4-10 and Ezek 36-39. Like the sequence in Ezek 36-39, the sequence in Rev 20:4-10 has the saints’ resurrection and reconstitution preceding God’s victory over the Gog-Magog rebels (we’ll get to them later, God willing). To get the meaning of the resurrection in 20:4-6, we should consider the meaning of the resurrection in Ezek 36-37. The OT prophet uses the metaphor of physical resurrection to describe the spiritual re-creation of Israel as God’s kingdom of priests. In fact, the metaphor describes Israel’s transformation into a temple for God’s Spirit. In keeping with the parallel in Ezek 36-37, then, we should interpret the saints’ first resurrection and reign in 20:4-6 as their spiritual re-creation as God’s kingdom of priests, as their transformation into a dwelling place of God’s Spirit.

4. The beatitude of 20:6. Confirmation of the interpretation above comes in 20:6 where John describes the blessing of partaking in the first resurrection by way of a contrast. On the one hand, the blessing announces the partakers’ redemption from the power of the second death (20:6b). But, on the other hand, the blessing records their constitution as a kingdom of priests to God and Christ (20:6c). Yet there is more.

Wise as God is in the application of redemption to Christ’s people, He ensures that neither bodily death nor eternal (i.e., the second) death will frustrate the final redemption of His people. As a result, the Spirit of Christ applies His victory to His people in a particular sequence. To be specific, since there must be no threat of eternal death to Christ’s people after they’re delivered from bodily death, the Spirit delivers them from eternal death before He delivers them from bodily death. Likewise, since there can be no deliverance from eternal death after bodily death, the Spirit delivers Christ’s people from eternal death before their bodily death. The beatitude of Rev 20:6 distills the point: the Spirit’s application of redemption delivers Christ’s kingdom-people from the second death before He delivers them from death, lest the second death still threaten them after their deliverance from death (thus the first [spiritual] resurrection in 20:4-6 precedes the general [bodily] resurrection in 20:13-14a; cf. John 5:24-29). Likewise, the Spirit’s application of redemption delivers Christ’s kingdom-people from the second death before their martyrdom occurs, lest their death prevent their deliverance from the second death.

5. Summary. The first resurrection and reign of the saints in Rev 20:4-6 highlight two blessings bestowed on the church: 1) their spiritual resurrection that takes place before both their physical death and their physical resurrection, and 2) their transformation into the kingdom-temple built by Christ (just as we saw in John 2:19-21; 5:24-29). Having been united even now with the Lamb in His resurrection and reign (cf. Eph 2:5-6; Col 3:1), the saints take courage in the authorization of God’s heavenly court to avenge their blood, should martyrdom be their portion. In the truths of the vision and beatitude of Rev 20:4-6, then, the saints will find the comfort and hope they need to persevere in the face of marginalization, persecution, and even death.

Eschatology Outlines: No. 7F Interpreting Rev 20:7-10

Christ’s Family Tree in Matt 1:1-6a

Posted by R. Fowler White

The family tree of Jesus Christ as Matthew presents it, and the window that it gives us into His human origins, is as intriguing as it is startling. When we review it closely, the lessons are arresting. One means that Matthew seems to use to give us clues to his lessons is when he adds phrases to the standard genealogy formula of “X was the father of Y.” Notice, for example, these three listings: “Jacob was the father of Judah and his brothers,” “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah,” and “Jacob was the father of Joseph the husband of Mary.” Additions such as these, and even omissions of certain names, seem to be among Matthew’s tactics to focus our attention where he wants it to go. Let’s see what we can find.

The Evangelist presents to us, first, the branches of Christ’s family tree that came from Abraham to King David (Matt 1:1-6a). Strikingly, here we see that certain natural branches (i.e., Israelite descendants) were selected and cut off from the line of the Christ, while unexpected unnatural branches (i.e., Gentile descendants) were grafted in. Check out the details.

Matthew begins with a summary of his message about Jesus’ human origins: He is the son of David and the son of Abraham. His family tree starts with His lineage from David and Abraham (notice the reversed chronology), evidently and primarily because of the covenant promises God gave to each. What makes this the more interesting is to recall the events in each man’s life that gave rise to the promises they received. One event that made David’s reputation (before his tragic fall into sin with Bathsheba) was his victory over Goliath, the enemy of God’s people. It was a victory that adumbrated his future subjugation of the foreign enemies that remained in the land after the conquest under Joshua. God rewarded David’s faith with the promise that his son would be better than he and would have the better, final victory over the enemies of God’s people. In fact, in the narratives that follow the family tree, Matthew will show us that Jesus is indeed better than David. He is, in fact, the obedient Royal Son who defeats the greatest enemies of God’s people: sin and death, the devil and the world!

But what of Abraham? Two events stand out in Abraham’s saga as preludes to God’s promises to him. At the beginning, we remember that it was by faith that Abraham left his home in Ur to go to a land of which he knew nothing other than that God would show it to him. Let that reality sink in for a moment. Later, toward the end of his story, by faith Abraham offered up his unique son Isaac in sacrifice to God, and God delivered Isaac from death. On both occasions, God rewarded Abraham’s faith with a promise to provide him a seed, a son in whom all the nations of the earth would find blessing. No wonder Matthew shows us by the end of his Gospel that Jesus launched a pan-national evangelistic campaign through His Apostles. This was the commission from none other than that Son of Abraham who, having offered Himself in sacrifice and been raised from the dead, brings the blessing of salvation from sins to all the nations!

With the summary of Jesus’ human origins before us in the headlines about David and Abraham, Matthew moves on to tell us that, from Abraham through David, God grew and trimmed Christ’s family tree. The Evangelist tells us that by grace God chose certain natural branches, but He cut off others. He included Isaac and Jacob, but cut off Ishmael and Esau. The Lord also included Judah, the natural branch who persuaded his brothers to sell their brother Joseph into slavery and was otherwise known in Scripture as a devious, conniving, promiscuous womanizer. Of course, He also included David the king, the war hero who fought God’s enemies; the king who reformed the nation and established its worship. This was David the poet, musician, and prophet in Israel; a friend to Jonathan, the firstborn son of none other than his nemesis Saul. This was David the adulterer, the accomplice to murder, the failed husband, the failed father. One message Matthew would have us get: in God’s determinations of Christ’s ancestors we do well to recognize His grace to the natural branches that He included and His severity to those that He excluded.

Matthew’s account of Christ’s family tree continues as he recites the names of those unnatural Gentile branches whom God grafted in by grace. God grafted in the sons of Tamar, the Gentile daughter-in-law of Judah. She is the woman who took the desperate step to save the coming Messiah’s lineage from extinction by posing as a prostitute to seduce negligent Judah to make her the mother of his twin sons, Perez and Zerah. God also grafted in the son of Rahab, the Gentile prostitute who believed in the God of Abraham, and was saved by Joshua and his spies from the destruction of Jericho. Further, God grafted in the son of Ruth, yes, even Ruth, the Gentile widow from the shamed line of Lot.

The family tree of Christ from Abraham up to David the king was quite an amalgamation, wasn’t it? It was a tree of natural Israelite branches and of unnatural Gentile branches. More than that, it was a tree husbanded by the singularly sovereign God who overrules sin for His own good purposes, even to bring His eternal Son into the world to save sinners.

Stay tuned for a meditation of Christ’s Family Tree in Matt 1:6b-17.

Eschatology Outlines: No. 7D Interpreting Rev 20:4-6

Posted by R. Fowler White

In an earlier post, I indicated that my aim here is to point the way to an interpretation of Rev 20:1-6 that takes full account of what we know from Scripture about God’s combat with beasts and His building work. While appreciating the work of many others, my approach at this moment is to apply the biblical themes of “victory over the dragon followed by house building” to the interpretation of this controversial passage. Since I’ve applied the combat theme to help in understanding Rev 20:1-3, we’ll turn to Rev 20:4-6 in this post.

I. The overall context of 20:1–21:8—Recall what we said before: the sequence of visions in this passage twice repeats the pattern of “victory followed by house [temple] building.”

A. 20:1-3, capture of the serpent = victory over the serpent

B. 20:4-6, first resurrection = temple building

C. 20:7-10, death of the serpent = victory over the serpent

D. 20:11–21:8, resurrection = temple building

Having applied the victory theme to the interpretation of Rev 20:1-3, we can turn to Rev 20:4-6 and the theme of temple (house) building.

II. Rev 20:4—Here we find a vision of that session of the Divine Council in which the heavenly court is authorized to avenge the blood of the martyred saints who, with the living saints (see Rev 20:9), had been built into God’s kingdom-city-encampment of priests through their participation in the first resurrection.

III. Rev 20:5—In this verse John distinguishes the first resurrection from the (second) resurrection in Rev 20:12-13. He makes the distinction by identifying the non-Christian dead as participants only in the (second) resurrection and the Christian dead as the only participants in the first resurrection. In other words, Rev 20:5 is profoundly important: it instructs us readers not to confuse the first resurrection, in which Christians are the only participants, with the (second) resurrection, in which non-Christians and Christians are both participants.

Some interpreters claim that Christians have no part in the resurrection of the dead in Rev 20:13, but they must then explain what Rev 20:5 contributes to this context where two resurrections are presented. We cannot say that because only Christians take part in the first resurrection, they have no part in the second. Nor can we say that because non-Christians take part only in the (second) resurrection, Christians do not take part in it. For either of these statements to be true, we must establish that both resurrections deliver from physical death—and the evidence for such a claim is lacking.

IV. Rev 20:6—A beatitude for the Christian dead. Here we notice that the blessings that belong to those who take part in the first resurrection are described elsewhere as the benefits of Christ’s redeeming work applied to believers before they die.

A. The first phrase of the beatitude: “the second death has no power over them.” According to Rev 20:12-15; 21:8, 27; and 22:15, the second death has power over the resurrected dead who died in bondage to their sins. To say, then, that “the second death has no power” over those who take part in the first resurrection is simply to say that Christ has freed them from their sins by His blood (1:5). In other words, such freedom is a benefit of redemption indisputably applied to believers before they die. To put this truth in the words of Rev 20:4, we say that God’s heavenly court will avenge those who had come to life in the first resurrection and had thereby been freed from the second death’s power, for Christ had freed them from their sins by His blood.

B. The second and third phrases of the beatitude—“they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years”—also reaffirm benefits of Christ’s work applied elsewhere to believers before they die.

1. The beatitude affirms truths that are the equivalent of “he has made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” in Rev 1:6 and of “you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth” in Rev 5:10. The beatitude, together with the new song of 5:10, doesn’t merely view the kingdom as future from the vantage point of the believer’s death. Nor does it view the kingdom’s reign as future from standpoint of the believer’s resurrection from the dead. Rather, the beatitude views the kingdom’s reign as certain from the standpoint of its establishment with Christ’s redemption of many from their sins and from the second death (5:9; 1:5).

2. Because the kingdom is established by Christ’s redemptive work, we may say both that the redeemed will reign in glory on the new earth (Rev 22:5) and that they will reign now on this earth and in heaven, even as Christ Himself has been doing (Heb 2:10, 13a). Still, it is fair to ask, how do the redeemed reign now? They reign now on earth by persevering in faith despite suffering and death. They also reign after death in heaven as they rest in glory from their earthly labors. Again, to put these things in the words of Rev 20:4, we affirm that Heaven’s court will avenge those who had come to life had reigned with Christ for a thousand years, for He had made them a kingdom of priests to His God and Father.

V. Death, resurrection, and temple in the Gospel of John

It is instructive to see the harmony between the Revelation to John and the Gospel of John as it relates the topics of death, resurrection, and temple.

A. John 2:13-22: In this text, John the Evangelist, who is author of the Revelation, portrays Jesus’ death and resurrection as the destruction and construction of the true temple. The death and resurrection of those united with Jesus should be interpreted similarly. That is, the death and resurrection of those in Jesus is the destruction and construction of a temple. In the resurrection of Jesus and the first resurrection (from the second death) and the resurrection (from death) of those in Him, something better than the temple is here.

B. John 5:24-29: Notice here that Jesus speaks of two resurrections, not one. First comes the spiritual resurrection, then the physical resurrection.

1. There is a resurrection in an hour that now is, 5:24-25: it is now ongoing and is seeing the Son’s own raised from spiritual death to spiritual life.

2. There is another resurrection at the last day (6:39, 40, 44, 54; 11:54), in an hour that is to come, 5:28-29. That resurrection will, in the future, raise “all who are in the tombs” from physical death: some to everlasting life, others to everlasting death.

3. Relevance of this point to the two resurrections of Rev 20:4–21:8

a. Participation in the first resurrection from the second death (20:4-6) is the building of the church as the spiritual temple.

b. Participation in the resurrection from death (20:12-13) is the building of the church as the physical temple-city (21:2-3, 9-27).

c. Note: Whether we interpret the first resurrection as spiritual or physical, the concept of resurrection as a divine building project in John’s theology should tell us that the first resurrection marks the building of a holy place.

Certainly, much more could be said. Not least we could show how the victory and house building themes appear in Ezekiel 36–48 and are used by John to help us understand the reimagined depiction of Christ’s work between His two comings and at His second coming and beyond in the visions of Rev 20:4–21:8. All this works together to inspire our confidence in our Lord Christ’s purpose and power to triumph over His enemies and ours as He works invincibly to finish His redemptive mission and to establish His righteous rule. For now, we’ll settle for noticing that when it comes time for the Heavenly Court of God to avenge the saints, martyred or living, those saints will have been built into God’s temple-kingdom-city-encampment through their participation in the first resurrection.

Eschatology Outlines: No. 7E More on Interpreting Rev 20:4-6

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