Sunday, January 17, 2021

Jesus Christ: God's Son, Our Lord (Sermon 2 on the Apostles' Creed)

“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” That's what we began to confess the last time we were here, as we began to unpack the core commitments of our faith as summed up in the Apostles' Creed. Last week, we explored who God is, and why we can believe he exists; we explored what it means that he's Almighty; we talked about how he created everything else that exists. Or as Irenaeus, granddisciple of the Apostle John, put it: “One God Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, who fashioned the human race, brought about the flood, called Abraham, brought the people out of the land of Egypt, spoke with Moses, gave the law, sent the prophets, and prepared fire for the devil and his angels” (Against Heresies 3.3.3). And we began to consider what it means to say that God is 'Father' – but in light of what we're about to learn, it takes on a radical depth of eternal meaning.

The Apostles' Creed goes on to say that we believe “in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.” Another ancient creed, the Nicene Creed, goes into even greater depth, confessing that we believe “in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, through whom all things were made.” That's a bigger mouthful, but it just unpacks in greater detail what we mean by the simpler words of the Apostles' Creed.

When we picture God in eternity 'before' creation, God was solitary as regarded all things outside himself, but he wasn't lonely. He wasn't lonely because he had company inside himself. Eternally, God meditated on a Word, the single eternal thought of his own Mind. Eternally, God generated a Son who flowed forth from him as an extension of his very own divine nature. We say that “God is Love” (1 John 4:8) – not just that God is loving, but that God is Love. And true love is never alone. God's very inner life is Love, God's inner life is relationship. Necessarily, because God is Love, God loves God – and the God whom God loves is the Word, the God whom the Father loves is the Son. This Son is unique, different from any other relationship that God could even have. This Son is begotten, not created: he is consubstantial with the Father, meaning of God's own essence. The Son comes from God and is God, comes from the Divine Light and is himself Divine Light. The Son is eternally being born, fathered, generated by God. This was so before time and space began to be. There was no creation going on, but there was eternal generation of the Son, eternal meditation of the Word. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).

And then God creates the world, creates the universe, creates everything that isn't God. But when he does that, he does it by means of his Word, by means of his Son. This Word is the 'Let-there-be' of creation (Genesis 1). “By the Word of the LORD, the heavens were made” (Psalm 33:6). “The universe was created by the Word of God” (Hebrews 11:3). Through “his Son,” God “created the world” (Hebrews 1:2). “All things were created through him and for him, and he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17). And literally, in him all things were created” (Colossians 1:16). So Irenaeus calls the Son “the pattern of the things he adorned” (Against Heresies 4.20.1). In some way, the Divine Word or Divine Son became the template, the model, the archetype of the entire universe that God created through him. And that's why we have parents and children in the creation: all generation in the universe is a created reflection, a partial imitation, of the way that this Divine Son relates to his Divine Father eternally within the inner life of the one and only God. And all things in creation in some way are made in the likeness of the Son and Word of God the Father – especially us, whom they made in their image and after their likeness (Genesis 1:26).

Throughout the days of prior covenants, the Lord God guided the human race, speaking to us in many different kinds of ways according to the covenants he made. And as he did so, he frequently foreshadowed the revelation of the Divine Son. To Adam was given the title 'son of God' (Luke 3:38), in imitation of the true Divine Son. But this imitation, our forefather who received the commandment, became wayward under the influence of a dark infestation called Sin. Rebelling in pride, theft, and deceit, he with his wife was cast out of the garden of delight into a dusty world, and wandered off to squander the inheritance of creation: the first prodigal son. In time, God chose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, making and establishing his covenant with each, claiming this one human family as his own family. Through the sons of Jacob, there arose the tribes which God forged into a redeemed nation, Israel, by rescuing them from Egyptian slavery. For God had warned the Egyptians: “Israel is my firstborn son … Let my son go, that he may serve me” (Exodus 4:22-23). To this national son, God gave his Law and many other blessings, and as one of their members would later write, “To them belongs... the adoption” (Romans 9:4). But repeatedly, this national son broke their family law, leading to the exile from which God pledged to “bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth” (Isaiah 43:6). And long before that exile, God chose a young man named David to be their king, and said about David, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son” (2 Samuel 7:14). Later, God said of David's heir Solomon, “He shall be my son, and I will be his father, and I will establish his royal throne in Israel forever” (1 Chronicles 22:10) – so this special adoptive sonship would be inherited by every king of the line of David. In naming all of these as sons, God pointed to ways that their roles imitated and shadowed the eternal Divine Son.

This Divine Son, as the Word, God's own Speech, had often given the ancient prophets hints that he himself, God's original and true Son, would one day walk among them as the Messiah, the perfect Son of Israel, and as the Last Adam, the perfect Son of Humanity. So Amos saw that God would raise back up the fallen “booth of David” (Amos 9:11). Hosea saw that some day, after a season of brokenness, the children of Israel would again return to “David their king” (Hosea 3:5). Isaiah spoke of a coming king who would rule with perfect justice (Isaiah 11:1-10), a servant who would bear the purpose of all the people (Isaiah 42-53). Micah was eager for an eternal ruler to “stand and shepherd his flock” and “be their peace” (Micah 5:2-5). Jeremiah hoped for a “righteous branch” from David's line who would “reign as king and deal wisely,” and in whose days “Judah will be saved” (Jeremiah 23:5-6). Ezekiel begged for “one shepherd” from David's line to feed the people and unite them (Ezekiel 34:22-23; 37:24-25). Daniel was awestruck by an “anointed prince” who was to come (Daniel 9:26) and the vision of an exalted human figure exalted to heavenly glory and worldwide rule (Daniel 7:13-14). Zechariah waited for a royal priest through whom God would “remove the iniquity of this land in a single day” (Zechariah 3:9), a humble king who'd rule forever (Zechariah 9:10). And Malachi awaited the sudden arrival of none less than God himself in his temple (Malachi 3:1-3).

In time, all these hints and hopes were rightly tied together under titles like 'Messiah': the Son of God who would live out that relationship perfectly, the Anointed King who wouldn't let his people down, the Savior who would turn history around. For as God tells the Messiah in Psalm 2, “You are my Son! … Ask of me, and I'll make the nations your heritage and the ends of the earth your possession” (Psalm 2:7-8). Building on that, Jews began to say more openly that the Messiah would be, in some special way, the Son of God. One, writing a century or two before Bethlehem, imagines God speaking of himself and his Son (1 Enoch 105:2). Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls express hope for the time when God will “father the Messiah” (1QSa 2.12) and picture God appointing the Messiah as his “firstborn Son” and crowning him with the glory of the clouds of heaven (4Q369 2.6-8). Other Jewish writings of the first century picture God raising up the Messiah to punish the Romans and hand Israel the victory, and so God describes the Messiah as “my Son” (4 Ezra 12:33-34; 13:37,52).

And as we believe and we confess, the eternal Son of God did come to be the Messiah who, as a Davidic heir, would bear the royal title 'Son of God,' thus tying up the loose ends and bringing the plan full circle. But he did not come for quite the reasons some had come to expect. As we'll hear more next week, he came to unite to himself a perfect human nature in our world, for our sake, to rejuvenate humanity itself and to relieve us from the estrangement of sin into which we'd so willfully fallen. And when he came into the world, he bore the name of Jesus, meaning “Yahweh is Salvation.” It was the sixth-most-popular boy's name in his area, popular like 'Bill' or 'Bob' today. But in him uniquely, it carried its full significance. He carried that name as a promise that he'd rescue his people – first Israel, then all who call on him – from the clutches of sin, that dark infestation.

The Bible tells us many things about this Jesus. What we say in our Creed is built on that original testimony. Peter said to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Matthew 16:16). Martha said to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (John 11:27). The Gospel of Mark aims to tell “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1). The Gospel of John was written “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). The apostles went around spreading a message about faith “in our Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 20:21). All the elements of our confession are ripped from the lips of those who knew him.

So we likewise confess that the Divine Son came into the world as Jesus. He bears the title of 'Christ' – the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word 'Messiah,' 'Anointed One.' He's been chosen and singled out, perfumed with his Father's own Spirit to make him rightly attractive to all in need, and to display him as worthy to act as prophet, priest, and king. Under the old covenant, just as the tabernacle and altar and holy things were anointed to set them apart (Leviticus 8:10; Numbers 7:1), so too would priests be anointed for their holy service (Exodus 29:29; Leviticus 6:22; 8:12). Under the old covenant, prophets could also be anointed (1 Kings 19:16; see also Psalm 105:15). And under the old covenant, kings had to be anointed. Saul was anointed (1 Samuel 10:1; 15:17). David was anointed multiple times (1 Samuel 16:13; 2 Samuel 2:4; 5:3; see also Psalm 89:20). His son Solomon was anointed after him (1 Kings 1:39). Later descendants like Joash (2 Kings 11:12), Jehoahaz (2 Kings 23:20), and the rest had to be anointed to serve as king.

And we can't overstate just how much hope the people placed in their king as “the Messiah of the LORD.” In the Babylonian siege, Jeremiah overheard people lamenting that their king, whom Babylon captured, was the one under whose shadow they hoped to live, and indeed that this anointed king was the very life-breath that filled their lungs (Lamentations 4:20). And so to call Jesus the 'Christ' is to say exactly that – that he's the King under whose bright shadow we hope to live, that he's as vital as the breath that fills our lungs and gives us life, that he's been chosen and picked out by God as the fulfillment of all the old promises made true. The psalmist had declared of him, “God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions” (Hebrews 1:9; cf. Psalm 45:7). Jesus himself announced that God “has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18; cf. Isaiah 61:1). Peter declared that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38). To call him 'Jesus Christ' is to say that all these things are true.

Likewise, following the biblical witness, we confess that Jesus really does bear the relation of Son to God his Father. This same historical person is the eternal Divine Son who was before all things. This same historical person is the template of creation, the agent of the world's existence, the overflow of God himself, and the royal leader who stands between God his Father and we his people. His intimacy with God his Father comes through in his rich prayer life (John 17:1). His filial relationship with God is the defining feature of his teaching: he was always going on about “my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21; 12:50; 18:14; etc.). And we read how this Jesus is “faithful over God's house as a Son” (Hebrews 3:6). For “Jesus, the Son of God,” is not only anointed king but also anointed as “a great high priest” (Hebrews 4:14), and “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:18).

And finally, just as we've confessed that Jesus is the Christ and is God's unique Son, so we confess that he is our Lord. He is, first of all, LORD – the God we meet in the Old Testament. When “the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7), Jesus is that LORD. When “the LORD saved Israel... from the hand of the Egyptians” at the sea (Exodus 14:30), Jesus is that LORD. When David says that “the LORD is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1), Jesus is that LORD. That's why the books we know as the Old Testament are a Jesus story. That's why we know we're meant to worship Jesus, to love him with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. But to confess Jesus as the Lord is also to admit that he has supreme authority. He is Lord over every power, heavenly and earthly. He is Lord over the angels, and they are required to obey him. He is Lord over the stars, and they are required to obey him. He is Lord over the nations, and they are required to obey him. He is Lord over the presidents and the lawmakers and the judges, and they are required to obey him. Caesar could only dream of being Lord like Jesus is Lord. Jesus is Lord over all the corporations and the countries, the media and the militaries, the foundations and the families. His word is law. His heart is love. And when we say in the Creed that he is “our Lord,” we're making a promise – a conscious promise to submit to him, to belong to him, to serve and obey and worship him. Others may build their lives around Lord Money or Lord Pleasure or Lord Politics or Lord Skin-Color or Lord Hobby or Lord Self, but we are given leave to worship none of these things. We are strictly reserved for Jesus, the Lord who is jealous for us (cf. Zechariah 1:14). To say the words of the Creed means that we believe these things are true and right.

Once again, we might ask, “Okay, that's what we say we believe, but practically speaking, what does it matter?” Well, I'll tell you just a few ways. First, this confession practically matters because if it's true, then Jesus is the key to understanding all creation. As the Word of God and Son of God, he was creation's original template, we said, and he still even now “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). That means Jesus makes a difference no matter what you're doing. He makes a difference for chemistry, for economics, for agriculture, for mechanics, for philosophy, for political science, for comparative religion, and more. All those things are studying created phenomena that God originally patterned according to his Word, his Son. In some way, they are reflections of Christ. And so to understand anything and everything, we're best served to start by sitting at the feet of Jesus, gazing in adoration at him as we studying anything at all about the world.

Second, Jesus is worthy of our worship. As God's Son, he is consubstantial with his Father – he shares in God's own essence, he's everything God is. And so even the angels of God, who behold the Father's heavenly glory, also gladly worship God's Son, Jesus (Hebrews 1:6). What that means is that 'good moral teacher' doesn't cut it, 'prophet' doesn't cut it, 'revolutionary' doesn't cut it – none of these trendy appellations rises to the level of Jesus' true dignity and worth. We love our atheist neighbors, but just like they're wrong on God, so they miss the mark on Jesus, missing the whole point and purpose of his life and work. We love our Jewish neighbors who follow the traditions of the rabbis, “beloved for the sake of their forefathers” (Romans 11:28), but they also miss the mark on Jesus: they reject Jesus as Israel's Messiah, refuse to see all God's promises made good in him (2 Corinthians 1:20), encounter him as a “stumbling block” (1 Corinthians 1:23), and so, in Paul's words, “Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking” (Romans 11:7). We love our Muslim neighbors, heirs of Ishmael whom God blessed (Genesis 17:20), but they also miss the mark on Jesus: they call him 'Messiah' without knowing its meaning (Qur'an 4:171), they're dead-set against calling him God's Son and even curse this confession as a lie (Qur'an 9:30), and so their own core confession falls short of the truth of the Lord. We love our neighbors embedded in belief systems like Jehovah's Witnesses, who name Jesus Lord and Son of God but without seeing he shares the Father's essence, and so they too miss the mark on Jesus. We love neighbors of many doctrines, but some of those neighbors fail to honor Jesus by giving him right worship, and “whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:23). And that is very practical indeed.

Third, Jesus is worthy of our imitation, because he's the template for the world as it's meant to be, and worthy of our obedience, because he's the Lord, our Lord whom we gladly claim. He told us, after all, that if we love him, we'll keep his commandments (John 14:15). And Peter reminds us that “Christ... left you an example, so that you might follow in his steps...” (1 Peter 2:24). Sadly, professing Christians don't always follow in his steps or keep his commandments. Sometimes, we get things badly wrong, and I can think of three messed-up versions of Christianity where we do that. One of them is Callous Christianity. That's what's put on display whenever we get so wrapped up in truths about Jesus that we lose sight of the person of Jesus, his actual character as kind and gentle, refusing to break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick (Matthew 12:20; cf. Isaiah 42:3). Or we get so rigid about our vision of right living that we disdain the weak, stumbling, and fallen – or even disdain people of the wrong race, people of the wrong sex, people of the wrong generation, people of the wrong income level, people of the wrong politics, people of the wrong beliefs. Callous Christianity, though, is an abhorrent thing, a pharisaic thing, a self-righteous and hypocritical and cruel thing that treats the Lord as our pedestal for dishing out condemnation. It's a thing that looks so little like the real Jesus. And we dare not go that way.

Another is Licentious Christianity. That's what's put on display whenever we think we can have Jesus without actually believing the things he's recorded to have said. It's what's pur on display when we write speeches for him in our heads, pretending he didn't say much that shapes our lives except for a nebulous call for good vibes, man. It also gets put on display when we imagine that cheap grace gives us cover to do what's right in our own eyes, and so – like so many prominent figures these days – we excuse the indulgence of our desires. But this Licentious Christianity is an untrue thing, a poisoned thing. It kicks against the goads. It suppresses the truth in unrighteousness. It treats the Lord as our very own Play-doh to remake at whim. It steals the kingdom of God from us. And we dare not go that way.

The last of these to mention now is Riotous Christianity. Sadly, we've seen our share lately. This was displayed a month ago in our nation's capital city, when false prophets rallied alongside hucksters and shock jocks, mingling the holy name of Jesus with calls for martial law, sales pitches for merchandise, and threats of violent uprising. So we should hardly have been surprised the other week at its fruit, when, not so far from the flags emblazoned with crosses and the signs declaring “In God We Trust” and “Jesus Saves,” a mob dragged, beat, bludgeoned, even killed police officers in the name of reverence for a politician. This wasn't merely an evil thing; it was a blasphemy and a betrayal of Christ. And so too do we betray him when we fail to name it for what it is. But these events were only the ugliest tip of Riotous Christianity, a deep and growing trend that drowns truth in cynicism and conspiracy, that itches to fight and scoff and mock, that debases holy words to glorify the profane, that strips off Christ's seamless robe so as to dress him up in a stars-and-stripes tracksuit. It treats the Lord as our very own pet and mascot, to dance the raging tune of our agendas and our causes. And once again: we dare not go that way.

Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, is Lord – and we claim to honor him as our Lord. That means we cannot and dare not remake him. It means we must refuse the temptation of Riotous Christianity, Licentious Christianity, and Callous Christianity. We must follow in the footsteps of the real Jesus, the Lord, not of our counterfeits.

Fourth, Jesus provides the template for our own adoption into God's family, in that Jesus' Sonship to God his Father is our gateway into sharing that relationship by grace. It's written that God “predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:5). Paul draws a clear and definite link between Jesus' title “God's Son” and the possibility that we, too, can receive “adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). Only since Jesus has God for his Father can he share with us the right to call out to God as our Father in heaven. And Jesus is very eager to do that! “To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). And he can do that by grafting us into his relationship with God as his Father.

Fifth, this confession matters practically because it's crucial to our own spiritual health. John tells us that. He asks, “Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:5). Victory over the world, real success in life's struggles, is contingent on trusting Jesus exactly as God's Son. “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God” (1 John 4:15). To the extent we really believe in “Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord,” we can abide in God, rest in God, and have the presence of God in our lives, transcending and overcoming the pressures of the world! And to openly confess “that Jesus is Lord” is a key element of being saved, rescued, from our sinful situation (Romans 10:9): “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31). “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18). “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12). It doesn't get more practical than that! So in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Lord, do we place our trust.

Lastly, this confession matters practically because even beyond the wisdom he teaches, the example he sets, or the salvation he offers, Jesus, in and of himself, is just too amazing to miss out on. He is “the bright morning star” (Revelation 22:16), “the radiance of the glory of God” (Hebrews 1:3). He's fairer than meadows and than woodlands, than sunshine and than moonlight, more bright and more beautiful than angel choirs or nations in their splendor. To meet him, really and truly, is to realize “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus [our] Lord” (Philippians 3:8). Nothing can compare with Jesus. Nothing would be worth trading Jesus away – not all the riches of the universe, not all insight and might and deathless delight – none of these amount to any good apart from Jesus. “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9). “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:25)! Amen.

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