Sunday, February 28, 2021

He Comes to Judge the Earth (Sermon 8 on the Apostles' Creed)

“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day, he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” Thus far have we known, in our journey through the Apostles' Creed. But now it's time to shift into the future tense. What are we waiting for? And here we have a new line to recite: “From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.”

The one who ascended will one day descend again. And just as his ascension involved his literal body, so will he future descent. Jesus will return again to the earth. But if we've been reading our Bibles, we know that. Even at the Ascension, what did the angels say to the disciples? “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). And even Paul knows about it, when he says that “the Lord himself will descend” (1 Thessalonians 4:16). What does this tell us? That Jesus really is still alive. Jesus really is still active. Jesus really is coming again.

Paul also tells us that the reason we can have the strength, the determination, and the desire to live upright lives now is because we are “waiting for our blessed hope.” We are waiting, because hope is on the horizon. We are hanging on, because help is coming. And because help is coming, we are not giving up this lifelong struggle against sin. Because hope is on the horizon, we are not counting our labor as a loss. And what is that blessed hope? “The appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). The appearing of Jesus in glory, the appearing of Jesus as both our great Savior and our great God, visibly presented to us here on earth – that is the blessed hope we're holding out for. That's what keeps us going.

And this is something worth looking forward to. When it happens, you or I will be able to talk to Jesus. We'll be able to listen to the sound of his voice with our actual ears, not just our hearts. We'll see the style of his hair. We'll gaze into the color of his eyes. We'll have the same opportunities – all of us! – that the apostles had during those forty days between the Resurrection and the Ascension. And that is something we will welcome. That is something we will celebrate!

So our natural next question is: When? If we're waiting for our blessed hope, how long do we have to wait? Is there some sort of countdown we can do? Well, sort of – with plenty of caveats!

First, we can expect warfare and disaster before the end. Jesus explains that “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are only the beginning of the end” (Matthew 24:7-8). When the end is approaching, it will begin with such tumultuous times. But bear in mind here that, throughout the history of the church, I struggle to think of a generation that looked out their windows and didn't think that those words felt awfully familiar.

Second, we can spot a bit of good news. Another sign of the end – or, better said, a precondition for the end – will be the spread of the gospel. Jesus says that “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). We can safely say that by the end, the church will have accomplished its mission of spreading the gospel. But what standard does that set? Is it met when there's at least one Christian from every ethnic group? Is it met when every region has had the gospel announced? Is it met only when the Bible is fully available in every language? Neither Jesus nor Paul gets that specific. But one tradition suggests that we should think of the church as a construction project, being built of people drawn from all nations that the gospel has touched (1 Peter 2:5), and it must achieve the proper height, which is “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” as Paul says (Ephesians 4:13; cf. Ephesians 4:15). And so one second-century Christian wrote that the end will not come until this construction is done, until the right number of blocks have been put in place – but “whenever the construction of the tower is completed, that is the end.”1 And this will hopefully include the repentance of the fleshly descendants of Abraham, for as Paul tells us, “a partial hardening has come upon Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:25-26), and “what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?” (Romans 11:15). The tricky thing here is that we haven't been given a number of blocks until God calls the tower finished – the blueprints are in Jesus' hands, not ours.

Third, we can expect general moral decay in the world. Jesus tells us that “lawlessness will be increased” (Matthew 24:12). Paul follows up on that thought by telling us that “in the last days..., people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of piety but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:1-5). Once again, bear in mind, it's hard to think back on any generation that looked out the window and didn't find these words to be pretty familiar. And yet we can expect that, when everything is said and done, we'll review history in the rear-view mirror and say, “Oh, I see it now.”

Fourth, we can expect a spread of false teaching. Jesus himself says that “many false prophets will arise and lead many astray” (Matthew 24:11). In the first century, those years were rife with pretend messiahs and pretend prophets. But when the final end is approaching, there will be plenty of counterfeits making a stir on the scene. There will be ample political and religious confusion. Jesus adds that “false messiahs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24). Paul hints that the end won't come “unless the rebellion comes first” (2 Thessalonians 2:3), and he may mean a rebellion against God by people who don't want to hear the truth but would prefer falsehood – maybe even falsehood in the church. Accordingly, other writings from the first generations of Christians warn that “in the last days, false prophets and corrupters shall be multiplied, and sheep shall be turned into wolves, and love shall turn into hate” (Didache 16.3). Some added that as the time draws close, “his disciples will abandon the teaching of the twelve apostles, and their faith and their love and their purity; and there will be much contention” (Ascension of Isaiah 3.21-22). Sound teaching will be a difficult and precious thing to find, because false teaching will be so popular; and that will be because of four factors: greed, pride, sexual sin, and “the spirit of error” (Ascension of Isaiah 3.27-28). And even in the church, “everyone will speak what pleases him in his own eyes,” and people will neglect the Bible “in order that they may speak what bursts out of their heart” (Ascension of Isaiah 3.30-31) – that's what the first-century church expected to come. Again, some of this would have been a common complaint throughout church history. But the End will not find it absent.

Fifth, as the end draws near, there will be a final trial. Jesus explains that “there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now – no, and never will be! And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect, those days will be cut short” (Matthew 24:21-22). The Roman siege of Jerusalem did not exhaust Jesus' meaning. There is a 'great tribulation' yet in store. We know that the persecution of Christians is an ongoing phenomenon, and the end will come only once the number of martyrs is “complete” (Revelation 6:11). And about this, the Bible offers more details, but we must tread very carefully.

Paul tells us that, even now, there is a “mystery of lawlessness” at work (2 Thessalonians 2:7). Forces opposed to God are lurking in the world and working in the world. And that should not be surprising to us. However, Paul says, there is a force restraining it from taking full effect (2 Thessalonians 2:6). He mentions a force or figure he calls the Restrainer. And he isn't more specific, because he already told the Thessalonians about this in person. But right now, in Paul's time already, there is a Restrainer or restraining force in the world that is inhibiting the final trial from beginning. For the final trial to commence, the Restrainer is going to have to step aside (2 Thessalonians 2:7). A lot of ink has been spilled over various guesses as to what this Restrainer is. But Paul was probably talking about the Archangel Michael. In the Greek Old Testament that Paul had access to, there's a little difference in the words of the Book of Daniel, and it says that before the final tribulation, Michael will 'disappear' or 'pass by' (Daniel 12:1 LXX). Up until that time, Michael is portrayed as the guardian angel of Israel – and, Paul likely thinks, now of the New Israel that is the Church. Michael is, as it were, blocking Satan from flexing his full ferocity. But Michael will step out of the way to allow the final trial to come.

And this, Paul tells us, will allow for the rise of a figure he calls “the Man of Lawlessness,” or “the Lawless One,” who in advance is known as “the son of perdition” (2 Thessalonians 2:3). This title looks back to the Greek version of Isaiah 57:4, where rebellious Israel is called “children of perdition, lawless offspring” (Isaiah 57:4 LXX). But Paul also knows the tradition where pagan rulers who invade God's land and get too uppity are given this title. So a century before Jesus was born, the Roman general Pompey the Great trespassed in the temple, and accordingly, a Jewish writing from that time calls him “the Lawless One” and prays for God to send the Messiah to fix the problem (Psalms of Solomon 17:11; cf. 17:22-24). When the real Lawless One comes, his rise will be plotted by Satan (2 Thessalonians 2:9). That's why he can't appear until Michael steps aside.

Paul explains that the Lawless One will be a deceiver (2 Thessalonians 2:10) – imitating Satan, who is known as “the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9). Some early Christians identified this deception as partially involving the way the Lawless One will present himself as a benevolent and compassionate ruler, in imitation of Christ – that he “pretends that he vindicates the oppressed.”2 But Paul tells us also that this ultimate Lawless One will have impressive abilities. Paul calls it “every power and signs and wonders of falsehood” (2 Thessalonians 2:9). And so early Christians envisioned that “the deceiver of the world shall appear as a son of God and shall perform signs and wonders, and the earth shall be betrayed into his hands, and he shall perform unlawful acts which have never occurred since the beginning of time” (Didache 16.4).

In particular, Paul says, the Lawless One will exalt himself above all religion, effectively presenting himself as God through the way he redirects religious impulses toward himself and toward the values he represents (2 Thessalonians 2:4). Paul describes this in terms borrowed from the Book of Daniel, where it says that this “king shall do as he wills: he shall exalt himself and magnify himself above every god and shall speak astonishing things against the God of gods; he shall prosper until the indignation is accomplished, for what is decreed is done” (Daniel 11:36). Jewish thinkers saw this pattern playing out in various pagan rulers. First there was Antiochus IV, the Hellenistic king who desecrated the temple and persecuted the Jews in the second century BC. Then there was Pompey the Great, the Roman general who invaded Jerusalem and whose soldiers rampaged in the temple courts. Then there was Caligula, the Roman emperor who ordered an idol of himself to be put inside God's Temple in Jerusalem. Paul is writing just a couple years before a teenager named Nero will become Roman emperor, and Nero would unleash a brutal persecution of Christians in Rome. Paul projects these types of patterns into the future, because he sees them as leading up to something. And that something – the Lawless One – will gain significant allegiance in the world.

So it isn't a surprise that some early Christian writings outside the New Testament try to get more specific. One of them, Ascension of Isaiah, imagines that Satan (or 'Beliar') will descend in the form of Nero, will perform miracles, will put on a convicting display of imitating Jesus, will proclaim himself Lord, will gain widespread support and even worship, will lead astray the majority of professing Christians, will set up his image in every city, will rule for a set period of time, and will compel the faithful remnant of believers to retreat from society (Ascension of Isaiah 4.2-13). From there begins a long tradition of filling in more details than we really have.

So we have five preconditions of the end – (1) warfare and disaster, (2) the spread of the gospel, (3) general moral decay, (4) the rise of false teaching, and (5) the final trial under the Lawless One. And from that, it nearly sounds like we can rest easy, because it at least looks like a few of those aren't yet accomplished. On the other hand, it nearly sounds like we should be hunkering down, because it at least looks like a few of those are upon us. But Jesus would caution us not to do either. Don't hunker down, and don't rest easy. Jesus also informed his disciples that “concerning that day and hour, no one knows – not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36). And before ascending into heaven, he told the apostles, “It is not for you to know the times and seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). So while we know a bit of what we can expect, we can't effectively use that to pinpoint how close it is.

Because, Jesus also tells us, his return – which follows these preconditions – will arrive suddenly. “The Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:44). Peter adds that “the Day of the Lord will come like a thief” (2 Peter 3:10), and Paul elaborates that “the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night: while people are saying, 'Peace and security!', then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:2-3). This fact calls for us to not hunker down and not rest easy, but to live each day attentively. “Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:12). Jesus does not want us to be caught living as if he'd never come back – caught having spent our all on things that don't matter. Neither does Jesus want us to be caught living so sure of his soon return that we run out of steam and can't endure for the long haul.

That's why, after giving his teaching on the end but before explaining his return, he tells two stories, two parables. In one story, a master leaves his servant to run the house in his absence. But the wicked servant might tell himself, “My master is delayed” (Matthew 24:48) – that is, “I don't need to expect him just yet, so I can put him and his return out of mind.” So then the wicked servant gets an unpleasant surprise when “the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know” (Matthew 24:50). The servant was unwise because he expected that his waiting would be long, and so he was caught unprepared by how shortly it took. On the other hand, in the other story, there are ten bridesmaids waiting through the night for the groom to come and start the feast. But half of them acted unwisely. They expected the groom to get there faster. So they didn't bring enough oil. And “as the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept” (Matthew 25:5). See, they expected that their waiting would be short, and so they were caught unprepared by how long it took.

We have these parables back-to-back so that we understand the twin perils on either side. We should not expect a short wait, we should not expect a long wait. We should expect Jesus. Knowing the conditions of the end does not let us determine in advance that he won't come today. It also doesn't let us determine in advance that he's sure to come in the next year, or even the next century. The condition of the world today offers us no firm guarantee of either, because God's ways are not our ways, God's thoughts are not our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9). We dare not presume to know the standards by which God will deem these various preconditions fulfilled. The way the world is now might do it, for all we know. Or it might fall way short, for all we know. Looking out our window, seeing the world, should stimulate us to live in expectation of Jesus while readying ourselves with endurance for the long haul. For “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22; 24:13).

And so, after these two stories and their warning against presuming the wait will be either short or long, Jesus chooses to add a third story. And that story is how, during our era, Jesus has entrusted us with his resources. To some of us, he has given much. To others of us, he has given us a smaller portion. Jesus uses financial images, but he's not just talking about finances. He's talking about his gifts to us. And whatever gifts these are, we see that Jesus, on his return, will be happy when he sees that we've done something with them – that we've made them profitable for him. Will Jesus be glad he invested with us? For some, he will be. But then he shows us a portrait of a servant who has risked nothing – who buried the initial investment in the ground and returns it intact, and has done this out of fear. He could at least have invested it in a bank that would guarantee some interest, however minimal. But instead, he has come through unchanged. Jesus trusted him with something based on an estimate of the servant's ability, and yet the servant has disappointed, refusing to risk, refusing to even invest. And so he is a letdown (Matthew 25:14-30).

As we wait for Jesus' coming, we dare not presume on how long we have, whether short or long. But we know that it will not be easy. Even when the end is far off, the mystery of lawlessness is at work in the world, and that means being a profitable Christian will not be an easy or riskless thing. And when the end is close, the challenge is even greater. Tumult is not easy. Disaster is not easy. The moral decay of society will not be easy. The temptations of false teachings and deceptions will not be easy. And certainly the final trial will not be easy. But we are called to spread the gospel to all nations and to endure to the end – enduring faithfully, but also enduring profitably, for Jesus' sake, until he comes again.

When he comes, what will we see, hear, feel? In this, the Bible and the understanding of the first generations of Christians give us some help. And first, there will be some signs. We begin with a sign in the sky, something significant up above. Jesus himself declared that “then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:30). Peter quotes Joel's prophecy about how the last days will be marked by “wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below... before the Day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day” (Acts 2:19-20; cf. Joel 2:30-31). And so the first mark of Christ's return cited by the early church was “first the sign unrolled in heaven” (Didache 16.6). What sign does that mean? Jesus doesn't tell us. Some Christians early in the second century speculated it would be “the sign of the cross.”3 Others thought it was about the heavens opening and a portal appearing.4 Still others thought it would be a celestial event like a comet or an eclipse or a supernova or a new star. But really, we don't know. But when we see it, then we'll know. If we're awaiting the Lord's coming attentively (as we ought to be), we'll recognize the sign as a sign.

And then the Bible describes a significant sound. Early church tradition follows the sign unrolled in heaven by “the sign of the trumpet's voice” (Didache 16.6). But that's just an abridgment of what Paul says when he picks out “a loud command” and “the voice of an archangel” and “the trumpet of God” (1 Thessalonians 4:16). And before him, Jesus had likewise mentioned “a loud trumpet call” (Matthew 24:31). This trumpet is both a note of joy and a call to arms. The sound we hear will command us, calling us to attention, making us ready.

As Jesus descends in the glory-cloud that is God's chariot, he will be accompanied. Some of those who come with him will be angels. Jesus said that “the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all his angels with him” (Matthew 25:31). Paul echoed that in looking ahead to when “the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels” (2 Thessalonians 1:7). But it won't just be angels. Paul also notes that “God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:14). These are the saints, those who have been waiting in heaven in the presence of Jesus. Paul expected when he died that he would “be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23), and since Paul died – or 'fell asleep' – before Christ's return, Paul's spirit will be there, accompanying Jesus alongside the other angels and saints. So will the patriarchs, the psalmists, the prophets; so will the apostles and martyrs and confessors. That vast group of the righteous who lived for Christ before or during or after his first appearance, plus perhaps millions of angels, will form the immense escort with whom the Lord will descend.

But then we will be gathered, and in this way, Jesus will be met by a welcoming party during his descent, to be escorted for the rest of his journey in honor and majesty. So Jesus himself teaches us that “he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matthew 24:31). And as Paul adds, “then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thessalonians 4:17). Paul's using the familiar image of an imperial visit, when the leading citizens of a city would meet the visiting emperor in the surrounding country, give him gifts, celebrate him, and then finish escorting him into town. Just so, Paul pictures us going out of the city called earth to meet Jesus, celebrate him, then finish escorting him on his descent. For “he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints and to be marveled at among all who have believed” (2 Thessalonians 1:10).

After that, Jesus will become visible to the perplexed world – and the world will not be pleased with it. Jesus himself told us that “all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matthew 24:30). “Behold, he is coming with the clouds,” John writes, “and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will mourn on account of him” (Revelation 1:7). They're getting this language from the prophecy of Zechariah, where God says to the people of Jerusalem “that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him as one weeps over a firstborn” (Zechariah 12:10). Some early Christian writings were content to say that “the world shall see the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven” (Didache 16.8), but others added the expectation that Jesus would be “shining seven times brighter than the sun” when he appears “in [his] majesty with [his] saints, [his] angels” (Apocalypse of Peter 1).

And then Jesus will set foot on the earth again. He will oppose the Lawless One and all persecutors, all who range themselves against human dignity, against the creation and its Creator, and against those who faithfully have sought to follow Jesus. Isaiah had described the Messiah by declaring that “he shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked” (Isaiah 11:4). And based on that, not only did Paul generally described the returning Christ as “destroying every rule and every authority and power” (1 Corinthians 15:24), but he specifically singled out “the Lawless One” as someone “whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming” (2 Thessalonians 2:8). And that's why Paul called this Lawless One “the son of perdition,” or – as some other translations might have it – “the son of destruction” (2 Thessalonians 2:3). It's talking about his fate. Here's the great thing: we know in advance that the Lawless One is doomed. His fate is sealed, and that fate is destruction. He'll get his clock cleaned. And since the whole 'mystery of lawlessness' will come to its head in him, that means lawlessness will be brought to an end.

How? Jesus will annihilate it with “the appearance of his coming,” with the epiphany of his appearance. Paul uses the word 'epiphany' there, a word commonly used then to describe a divine appearance. When Jesus returns, he will conquer them as God. He need not raise a finger. He only speaks, only thinks, only wills, and the Lawless One is done. The Lawless One loses the fight in the instant Jesus chooses to call victory his. And that is how, as Revelation tells us, “from his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations” (Revelation 19:15). And so, as another early Christian writing summarizes all this, “the Lord will come with his angels and with the hosts of the saints from the seventh heaven, with the glory of the seventh heaven, and will drag Beliar (and his hosts also) into Gehenna,” into hell (Ascension of Isaiah 14.14). That will be, for all intents and purposes, their destruction – the doom that confronts the embodiments of evil on earth.

It's worth pausing here to reflect on some of the significance of what we've said. We've looked together at five examples of what the Christian tradition has often considered to be preconditions for the return of Jesus Christ at the conclusion of this major phase of the world's story. Many of those preconditions are, in themselves, pretty intimidating. War and disaster? Moral decay? False teaching? Gravely serious persecution, embodied in the figure of the Lawless One? Those are not things we welcome. They each bring real harms.

And yet, because of the words of Jesus, we find hope buried in each one. By setting these as preconditions of his return, Jesus has transformed all our fears into reminders – not longing laments, but whispered repetitions of a promise. Every time a war breaks out, it should break our heart. But into the cracks of that broken heart, the Lord softly says, “This is bad, and it will be so much worse; but stay the course, and I'll meet you at the end of it.” Every time disease breaks out so widely, or drought withers the land, or blazing flame rages beyond human control, the Lord whispers that he'll be here someday. When the moral fabric of society is beaten to tatters, and our neighbors and the powers of the world seem to all have lost their minds, the Lord places his hand on our shoulder and reassures us it's only a matter of time. With every foolish and arrogant and overweening leader who arises, the Lord embraces us and tells us that one still worse will come, but Jesus will knock him dead. In that light, all that dismays us in the world, all that seems to echo these warnings – whether softly or loudly, in the distance or right at hand – well, they become opportunities for hope. Hope, because the return of Christ will be far more valuable than the sum total of all the atrocities and tragedies of history.

When he comes in the clouds, shining with a brightness that makes the sun and stars pale, no longer concealing or soft-selling his glory, Jesus will come with an unthinkable army of angels and saints – but they will not fight. Jesus will face off with the leader of worldwide rebellion and persecution – but Jesus will not lift a finger. His word alone is enough. And with that simple word, Jesus will bring the gospel home. Bad news for the Lawless One and for the mystery of lawlessness is good news for all those who live in faith and hope and love. There will be no more dread of war, for the Prince of Peace will reign on earth. There will be no more protective measures against pandemic disease, for the Great Physician will inoculate us all. There will be no more hunger or thirst or poverty, for Christ's feast will have no end. There will be no more fretting over moral decay or over deceptive notions, for the Truth who is All Beauty and All Goodness will teach all. There will be no tribulation, no trial, no terror, for Jesus will be here, and we will marvel at him face-to-face, and he will restore all things.

But what does that restoration mean for a world that has resisted the gospel so long? At this point, we need to talk about the real problem of evil. Too often, some of us in the Western world, insulated from reality by our carefully crafted fictions born from luxury and leisure, have sought to mask language of 'evil,' as if it could be psychologized away. But the truth is, there is right, and there is wrong. There is good, and there is evil. History is littered with blessings and curses, with altruism and atrocity. And history is only where each moment goes as we lay it aside through the inexorable march of time. There are things people do, sometimes, that are good. Some of those things are very good. And by doing these good things in a disciplined way, we might build up a rhythm that makes them easier to do. This habit of good actions, words, and thoughts – that's a virtue. On a small scale, opening the door for people carrying heavy things is a good action. And as we do it frequently as a courtesy, it gets written onto our minds and muscles, our heart and heft, so that eventually, our active minds need little deliberation about it: our eyes catch sight of someone struggling, our muscles move to help, almost automatically. But on the other hand, there are things people do that are bad – sometimes, very and truly bad. Not only do these bad things threaten to disrupt our habits of virtue, but they make other bad things easier. Such a habit of bad actions, words, and thoughts – that's a vice. And vicious habits can be challenging to break, because the natural bent of our hearts is to settle to a lower level. Transforming vicious habits into virtuous ones requires fighting against the moral gravity, that downward pull generated by what has sometimes been called 'original sin' or a 'sin nature' – our default propensity to develop in wrong ways, to fall short of what we could have been or even of what we could still be. And to really break the cycle, we need the grace of God.

In the world, now and before, there have been cases of people doing exactly that – rising heroically through the grace of God, until virtuous habits liberate their life, relatively speaking, from that moral gravity. We think of names like Mother Teresa, who aimed to faithfully serve the poor in their suffering. We think of St. Damian, the Belgian priest who went to a leper colony in Hawaii and gave his all, day after day, for those widely deemed untouchable – and who, to minister God's grace to them as he'd received it himself, paid eventually with his health and his life. Many others could be named, of greater or lesser extremity.

And yet the opposite is also easy to find. We think of Josef Mengele, the German doctor who afflicted his victims in Nazi concentration camps through horrific human experimentation. We think of so many antebellum slave-owners who whipped their human brothers and sisters in fields and houses. We think of stories of abuse, of racial and sexual hatred, of acts of violence and betrayal and deceit. And many such could be named, of greater or lesser extremity.

In many of these cases, those who had begun developing virtuous habits died without seeing a reward other than their past life of virtue itself; and those who had sunken into vicious habits died without ever being adequately confronted with the moral guilt of their misdeeds, never compelled to recognize the true horror of their vices. And deep within every human heart, there is buried an instinctive awareness that this is unacceptable. It cannot be the case that vicious people escape confrontation. It cannot be the case that virtuous people meet an end utterly unworthy of their lives. A part of us lives that hungers and thirsts for justice. Bad outcomes should be assigned to bad deeds, if not necessarily to their doers. Good outcomes should be assigned to good deeds, again if not necessarily to their doers. Someone needs to get this imbalance under control. Someone needs to see to it that, even if only eventually, vice meets its proper end and virtue flowers toward endless horizons. This world needs an arbiter who can make all this happen. Or, in other words, the world needs a judge.

And that was always expected to be God. Abraham addressed God as “the Judge of all the earth” (Genesis 18:25). Hannah, the mother of Samuel, was inspired to prophesy that “the LORD will judge the ends of the earth” (1 Samuel 2:10). David sang thanks over the thought that “the LORD... comes to judge the earth” (1 Chronicles 16:33). Psalmists declared that “God is a righteous Judge, and a God who feels indignation every day” (Psalm 7:11), that “the LORD judges the peoples” (Psalm 7:8), that God “judges the world with righteousness” (Psalm 9:8), that “the heavens declare his righteousness because God himself is Judge” (Psalm 50:6), that “surely there is a God who judges on earth” (Psalm 58:11). And so they called on him to do exactly that: “Arise, O God, judge the earth!” (Psalm 82:8). God is the God “who judges righteously, who tests the heart and the mind” (Jeremiah 11:20). In the New Testament, James writes that “there is only one Lawgiver and Judge: he who is able to save and to destroy” (James 4:12). Peter talks about God as the One “who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23) or “who judges impartially” (1 Peter 1:17). Paul speaks of the events in question as “the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5).

But God has added a twist. God has chosen to achieve his judgment by appointing Jesus to actually carry it out. And so Jesus told us that “the Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father” (John 5:22-23). So “the Father has given [Jesus] authority to execute judgment” (John 5:27). Therefore, Peter recalled that Jesus had commissioned the apostles “to testify that he is the One appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42). Paul's gospel is anchored in the truth that “God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus (Romans 2:16), and he teaches that “Christ Jesus... is to judge the living and the dead” (2 Timothy 4:1). And Jesus is who James means in declaring, “Behold! the Judge is standing at the door” (James 5:9).

Now, here's the great thing about that: it means that we have a judge “who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin,” and therefore can “sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15). This judge is just, yes. This judge is impartial, yes. But judgment has been placed in the hands of the most gentle man who ever walked the face of the earth. Judgment has been given to the one whose eyes brim with mercy, the one who'd never snuff out a smoldering wick or break a bruised reed, the one who weeps for every sin we won't turn away from, the one who laid down his very life for his friends. It's a terrifying thing to be judged by someone who can't relate to your motives or who doesn't understand your reasoning. But the world will be judged by someone who can sympathize with every weakness you've suffered, someone who understands fully the reasoning you used to get to each and every decision. This in no way compromises his justice or impartiality. But it does make him all the more sympathetic and fair. He will never make a wrong judgment. He will never make an unreasonable judgment. He will never make an inhumane judgment. It is excellent news that Jesus is the One to judge us – and that no one else gets a say.

So what will the event be like? What can we expect for Judgment Day, beyond what we've already said about the return of Christ? First, we can expect that his appearance to judge will be bright and fiery. “For behold, the LORD will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to render his anger in fury and his rebuke with flames of fire, for by fire will the LORD enter into judgment” (Isaiah 66:15-16). Daniel suggests that “a stream of fire issued and came out from before him” (Daniel 7:10). We've already noticed that fire has been associated with Jesus' return – Paul said that Jesus would be “revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-8). And repeatedly in Revelation, Jesus' eyes – with which he'll look on sin in the world – are described as “like a flame of fire” (Revelation 1:14; 2:18; 19:12).

And this fire will be significant. The New Testament sketches a portrait of cosmic upheaval due to this fire. “The heavens and the earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the Day of Judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (2 Peter 3:7). “The heavens will pass away with a roar, and the elements will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be found” (2 Peter 3:10). And in keeping with that, Revelation says that “from his presence, earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them” (Revelation 20:11). And so the early church imagined that “then the voice of the Beloved will reprove in anger this heaven and this earth and the mountains and the hills and the cities and the desert and the trees..., and the Beloved will cause fire to rise from him...,” and some things will “become as if they had not been created” (Ascension of Isaiah 4.18). However literally we should take this, we should not expect Judgment Day to be easy for creation to handle. These pictures suggest creation will buckle and break from the manifestation of Jesus' fiery glory for judgment – that it will chase away or dissolve the very foundations of created reality.

But Jesus will be present. And Jesus will be visibly enthroned. Now, we know, he's enthroned high in heaven at the right hand of God his Father. But he will not cease to be enthroned when he comes to judge. He will be enthroned for judgment. Jesus himself says that “when the Son of Man comes in glory..., then he will sit on his throne of glory” (Matthew 25:31). Jesus elsewhere refers to “the seat of his majesty” (Matthew 19:28). Paul talks about it as “the judgment seat of God” (Romans 14:10), but Paul knows that Jesus will be the One we'll see seated there. And John in Revelation portrays “the great white throne” (Revelation 20:11).

Once Jesus is enthroned to judge, all who have ever lived will be gathered into his presence. As the Lord said through the Prophet Isaiah, “The time is coming to gather all nations and tongues, and they shall come and shall see my glory, and I will set a sign among them” (Isaiah 66:18-19). Jesus himself declared that “before him will be gathered all the nations” (Matthew 25:32). And Paul explains that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10). Once gathered into the presence of the enthroned Judge Jesus, all – whether willingly or unwillingly – have to admit the truth of who Jesus is and the undeniable right he has to judge. “At the name of Jesus, every knee [will] bow – in heaven and on earth and under the earth – and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11).

And then the judgment will begin. Daniel had mentioned a stream of fire, and since there's so much imagery of fire surrounding this event, some early Christians began to picture that judgment would involve each person being tested by stepping into that river of fire, such that those who'd been chosen and approved would be able to pass through with the fire only refining them, while those who were unrighteous would simply be swept away by the flaming flood (Apocalypse of Peter 6). And this way of thinking was helped by the Apostle Paul when he declares that “each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done” (1 Corinthians 3:13).

In this evaluation, the sum total of our lives, in all their detail, will be exposed and examined and tested. That includes actions, as we've said. We're going to be “judged impartially according to each one's deeds” (1 Peter 1:17). Paul himself says that God “will render to each one according to his works” (Romans 2:6). But not only actions will be judged. Even words will be taken into consideration. Jesus informs us that “on the Day of Judgment, people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36). Even things we say by ourselves, things that slip out in the heat of the moment, things we forget as the years go by – those will be quoted back, entered into the record.

And not only actions and words, but even our internal states and thoughts we've cultivated will be exposed. We know, as Paul says, that “the secrets of men” will be held up to judgment (Romans 2:16). “All are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13). “The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later” (1 Timothy 5:24). For when Jesus sits to judge, he “will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart” (1 Corinthians 4:5). His word will “discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12), and our “evil thoughts” will have to be weighed alongside our actions and words (Matthew 15:19), because our “conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse” us (Romans 2:15). Jesus himself declares, “I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works” (Revelation 2:23). And to him, our confession will be given: “Each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12). It will not be possible to 'plead the Fifth,' refusing to potentially incriminate ourselves. Testifying is mandatory.

Now, from this evaluation process, we're told that Jesus will separate everyone into two binary categories, in the end. “He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left” (Matthew 25:32-33). When Jesus talks about separating sheep and goats, he's carrying forward pictures he already previewed in the Book of Ezekiel. There, Israel is pictured as a flock, with her national leaders as shepherds who have been severely derelict in their duties: “You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep, the weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them – so they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts” (Ezekiel 34:3-5). So God commits to personally take on that shepherding role (Ezekiel 34:11-16). Then, addressing the flock, God says, “Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats” (Ezekiel 34:17). Jesus picks up this language – sheep on the one far end, goats on the other – and pledges to settle the accounts.

All this isn't to say that there won't be degrees within each category. But there will be two categories. There is not a third – not by the end, not at the judgment. There is no middle ground to stand on. Nobody is left up to a coin toss. Presently, we know that there's good and evil in each of us. As the Russian philosopher Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn most famously said, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”5 But in the end, we say, that line will be cut through and cut out. There will be those who stand on the right hand, having allowed Jesus to destroy the piece of their heart that was unworthy. And there will be those who stand on the left hand, clinging to their whole heart, plunging into the flame with it, and allowing themselves to forever be identified with the worst in themselves. There will be no third option, no middle ground, no coin toss. There will only be these two. There will only be sheep and goats.

The basis for evaluation, then, will be an overall lifestyle – the sum total and pattern that emerges from those actions and words and thoughts, and how their burden has been handled, whether by faith or unfaith. “They were judged, each of them, according to what they had done” (Revelation 20:13). We might feed, water, clothe, and visit “the least of these my brethren,” Jesus says, or we might shun them. Some will have proven, through their whole life, to be developing real virtue that's allied with grace. Others will have proven, again through their whole life, to be developing vicious habits, even if under the color of relative but graceless virtue.

When the judgment takes place, we who profess Christ vocally will be first up. Peter announces that “it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God … It begins with us” (1 Peter 4:17). We have reason to think, from these words and from other clues in the Scriptures, that as judgment comes to each, we will be reached earlier in the list. But some good news is that the suffering we deal with now, as believers, is counted by God as an advance helping of refining fire. “When we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:32). As the prophet Zechariah hears God say, “I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver and test them as gold is tested” (Zechariah 13:9), and Peter follows that thought by saying that our “various trials” now are meant to test the “genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire” (1 Peter 1:6-7).

After us, judgment will equally include those who have not professed their faith, for as Peter also says, “the Gentiles... will give an account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:5). And for this part, in some way, after we're in the clear, we may have some role in assisting at the Last Judgment. Jesus first says to his twelve core disciples that they will “sit on twelve seats judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28). But then Paul says to us, “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? … The world is to be judged by you … Do you not know that we are to judge angels?” (1 Corinthians 6:2-3).

On that day, it will not be good to find yourself a goat! “Their end is destruction” (Philippians 3:19), and those who refuse to trust in Jesus are “already condemned” (John 3:18). “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). “For behold, the Day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The Day is coming that shall set them ablaze...” (Malachi 4:1), when Jesus returns “in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might...” (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9). “The Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones to execute judgment on all and to convict the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him” (Jude 14-15, quoting 1 Enoch 1.9). Those who “did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness,” Paul says, will “be condemned” (2 Thessalonians 2:12). And so “the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality” (Colossians 3:25).

But for those cast in the role of sheep, “each one will receive his commendation from God” (1 Corinthians 4:15) and can expect a “crown of righteousness which the Lord, the Righteous Judge, will award... on that day... to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8). So “watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward” (2 John 1:8), for “if the work that is built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward” (1 Corinthians 3:14). For these sheep, although the test has been a hard one, yet the event is a rescue operation. For in waiting for Christ's return as Judge, “we await a Savior” (Philippians 3:20), as “Christ... will appear a second time... to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28). For “when Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:4).

And so, by abiding in Jesus and living faithfully and enduring to the end, we can look forward to that Day. John tells us that it really is possible for someone to “have confidence for the Day of Judgment,” provided we pursue the goal of perfect love (1 John 4:17). For if we abide in the God who is Love, then when Jesus comes as his appointed Judge, “we may have confidence,” John promises us, “and not shrink from him in shame at his coming” (1 John 2:28). What more incentive do we need to repent, believe, and live in a way worth rewarding, a way we can have confidence in by our Savior's grace? So hear these final words from the lips of Jesus: “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done” (Revelation 22:12). Thanks be to God!

Sunday, February 21, 2021

The Father's Right-Hand Man (Sermon 7 on the Apostles' Creed)

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day, he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven...” That's where we've ventured so far, in our journey through the Apostles' Creed. But now, it's time to finish that sentence. “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” For weeks we've been talking in the past tense. Now, and only now, do we shift into the present tense. Jesus now is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Once Jesus has presented his offering of his laid-down life, once Jesus has been the priest sprinkling heaven with his own purity, once Jesus has taken in hand the plan, that's when Psalm 110 begins to kick in. Remember how that opens? “The LORD said to my Lord, 'Sit at my right hand...'” (Psalm 110:1). Sit where? On God's own throne, the highest throne in the highest heaven.

So let's start with that imagery: God's throne. We mentioned it in discussing the last article, but only in passing. Now it's time to go more into detail. The psalmists are very emphatic and repetitive in portraying God as being enthroned. Consider Psalm 47, where “God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne” (Psalm 47:8). Consider Psalm 9, where “the LORD sits enthroned forever; he has established his throne for justice, and he judges the world with righteousness” (Psalm 9:7-8). And specifically, they say that God's throne is in heaven. Consider Psalm 123, which addresses God as the One who is “enthroned in the heavens” (Psalm 123:1). Think also of Psalm 103, where “the LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all” (Psalm 103:9). Consider even Psalm 33, where “the LORD looks down from heaven... from where he sits enthroned...” (Psalm 33:13-14). Isaiah will even identify God's throne with heaven itself: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool” (Isaiah 66:1). Jesus follows the same line of thinking when he says, in his Sermon on the Mount, that “heaven... is the throne of God” (Matthew 5:34).

So why do we make a connection between Jesus and this throne? Well, it starts with his own words. When he was placed on trial the night before his crucifixion, he told his accusers that they would eventually “see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power” (Mark 14:62). Then, at Pentecost, the Apostle Peter announced that Jesus had by then been “exalted at the right hand of God” (Acts 2:33). Later, when Peter and the other apostles were themselves being interrogated by the Jewish high priest Caiaphas and the whole Sanhedrin that “God exalted [Jesus] at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins, and we are witnesses to these things...” (Acts 5:31-32). The Apostle Paul likewise declares that God “seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:20), and that “Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1). The author of Hebrews insists that “when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:12), and so he now “is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven” (Hebrews 8:1). Later Christian writings envision that Jesus “ascended into the seventh heaven, and all the righteous and all the angels praised him, and then... he sat down at the right hand of that Great Glory” (Ascension of Isaiah 11.32). The ascended Jesus himself even told John, “I myself have received authority from my Father” (Revelation 2:27), and “I also overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Revelation 3:21). So it isn't just one part of the New Testament that says it. They all agree!

Jesus, Peter, Paul, the writer to the Hebrews, and others all use that same phrase 'at the right hand.' They get it, we already saw, from Psalm 110. But why the right hand? Now, of course, God the Father does not literally have a right hand, or a body at all. God existed before heaven and earth – he made them. He existed before time and space – he made those, too. And there can be no such thing as a body unless first there's space. So God the Father, who never became incarnate, does not literally have a tangible body or a shape. It's why Moses can stress so heavily that when God spoke to Israel out of the fire, “you saw no form” (Deuteronomy 4:15). Yet the Bible is constantly talking about him as if he does. These are called anthropomorphisms. They describe a non-human reality in terms that we humans, who do have shapes and bodies, can more easily get our minds around and understand. So, for instance, David says of God that “smoke went up from his nostrils and devouring fire from his mouth” (Psalm 18:8). Another psalmist talks about God's “wings” (Psalm 91:4).

You can't measure God's size. You can't take God's temperature with a thermometer. But for our sake, God can describe himself in ways we can understand, and can manifest himself as though he were a body in the universe like we are. But since God doesn't literally have a body, he doesn't literally have a right hand. Saying that God has a right hand is a symbol. What does it symbolize? What does it mean? For that, we have to reflect on how the Bible, inspired by God, uses 'right hand' language to talk about God – and that language is based on the way people talked about their right hands to begin with.

So, first of all, to be at someone's 'right hand' was to be positioned in the place they honor the most. In ancient royal courts, the vicinity of the king's 'right hand' was the position reserved for his most trusted official, for the executive officer of the kingdom. Projecting that idea upward, we have religious writings from the Canaanites that talk about one god being given a throne at the right hand of another one (KTU 1.4 V 46-47). And that sort of talk should make sense to us. Still today, we speak of a person's closest ally and most trusted assistant and helper being his “right-hand man,” don't we?

And God's right hand is a particularly good place to be, according to the psalmists. Think of all the different contexts in which they mention God's 'right hand'! The author of Psalm 108 prays, “Give salvation by your right hand” (Psalm 108:6). The author of Psalm 21 says to God, “Your right hand will find out those who hate you” (Psalm 21:8). So God's right hand signifies his activity in the world, to deliver and rescue his faithful ones and to punish and afflict those who threaten his faithful ones or the moral order. The author of Psalm 17 cries out to God as the “Savior of those who seek refuge from their adversaries at your right hand” (Psalm 17:7). So God's right hand signifies his protection and security. The author of Psalm 16 says to God, “At your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). So God's right hand signifies the delightful rewards with which he honors those he delights in.

So to say that Jesus has ascended into heaven and been placed at God's right hand, we're saying that he's been exalted to a position of high honor. We're saying that he's been accorded the most supreme and excellent status there is. We're saying that he has absolute security – he's untouchable. We're saying that he's enjoying absolute delight and joy, a bliss that the sublimest pleasures of this life cannot even begin to compare with. We're saying that he's in the position of God's activity, even that he is the agent of salvation and justice through whom God acts in the world in all that he does.

Before going to the cross, Jesus had prayed at the Last Supper, “Now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5). And so what we're saying when we confess this line in the Apostles' Creed is that God the Father has completely and totally answered his Son's prayer, giving his Son exactly what he asked for. We're told that Jesus was “taken up in glory” (1 Timothy 3:16), and that Jesus is now “crowned with glory and honor” (Hebrews 2:9). “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the Name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9). God placed Jesus “above every name that is named, not only in this age but in the age to come” (Ephesians 1:21).

What name is that? The unique name of God himself: Yahweh. There's no name in all creation that can match that name. It carries a holiness and gravity and glory that outweighs the entire universe. “All the nations that you have made shall come and worship before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name” (Psalm 86:9). “From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of Yahweh is to be praised” (Psalm 113:3). “Let them praise the name of Yahweh, for his name alone is exalted” (Psalm 148:13). “Give glory to the name of Yahweh” (Isaiah 24:15). “There is none like you, O Yahweh: you are great, and your name is great in might” (Jeremiah 10:6). It isn't for no reason that properly treating God's name is one of the Ten Commandments. And Jesus wears that very name – it is now publicly declared to refer to Jesus just as much as to his Father or his Spirit. And that is a public declaration that Jesus is worthy of worship and all honor, all respect, all service.

It also entails the right to rule. After all, if Jesus is being seated on a throne, in fact seated on God's throne as God, it makes total sense that he isn't just sittin' pretty there! He's got authority. He's ruling. He's reigning. We can find testimony to that in the Old Testament, of course. The psalmist of Psalm 72 prays for the “royal son” to have worldwide dominion, and asks, “May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him” (Psalm 72:11). Daniel likewise saw that to the Son of Man “was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples and nations and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion which shall not pass away, and his kingdom is one that shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:14). So there's nowhere on earth that is exempt from Jesus' permanent rule and reign – all nations, all peoples, will always live under his dominion.

And the New Testament agrees. So the Apostle Peter, as one example, tells us in 1 Peter 3:22 that Jesus “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” Think about that! By being positioned at the right hand of God, even angels and other heavenly beings are all ranked beneath Jesus on the organizational chart of reality. And the Apostle Paul agrees. He writes in Ephesians 1:20-21 about how Jesus is now “enthroned at God's right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” Jesus is above every ruler. Jesus is above everyone who wields authority. Jesus is mightier than the sum total of all other power. Jesus is Lord in every dominion. There is no domain in which Jesus isn't chief. That's what God his Father has bestowed upon Jesus as his birthright.

In fact, the exalted Jesus has transcended all limitation. Paul tells us, in Ephesians 1:23, that Jesus is now “him who fills all in all.” Paul adds, in Ephesians 4:10, that Jesus ascended for a purpose: so “that he might fill all things.” What does that mean? Well, we have to understand that when Jesus became incarnate, he accepted a number of limitations. Paul tells us elsewhere, in that great passage from Philippians 2, that Jesus had “emptied himself by taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:7). That does not mean that Jesus ceased to be God. That would be impossible. Jesus is God, and he never stopped being God. Nor does it mean that Jesus lost any of the defining characteristics of God. But it does mean that Jesus set aside the display of his glory. It means that Jesus refrained from fully exercising his divine power. It means that Jesus took on an even more subordinate role, refusing full enjoyment of his divine prerogatives. It means that Jesus accepted the range of customary needs and limitations that come with having a human body. A human body does not fill all things. It's confined to a place. It's dependent on material circumstances.

But, as the Church Fathers might have said, now with this exaltation, even Jesus' flesh, even Jesus' body, is in some way 'divinized' or 'deified' – that attributes of God now carry over even to the fleshly body of Jesus. What this means is that any limitation resulting from Jesus' early self-emptying when he came down to be conceived in Mary's womb – that limitation is done away with, is reversed. Jesus has not given up the incarnation. He remains a man. He remains Jesus. But he has resumed the full display of divine glory and full exercise of divine power and full enjoyment of divine prerogatives. His presence fills everything. His presence encompasses all the heavens and the earth. All the universe is a bubble in the infinite sea that is Jesus!

This is no doubt the appropriate point to turn back to Revelation. Now remember, when John first starts to see God's throne room in Revelation 4, Jesus isn't there. It's only in the next chapter that suddenly John sees “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (Revelation 5:6). Through all the symbolism, we understand that what John is seeing is the scene when Jesus entered into heaven. Suddenly, there he is, standing in front of God's throne. He's approached. He's done all those other things. He's a sacrificial Lamb, but he's standing, because he is risen from the dead. And what happens? Jesus “went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne” (Revelation 5:7). What scroll? Well, John saw God holding “a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals” (Revelation 5:1). Again, this is a symbol for God's secret plan for all of history – which couldn't move forward without someone authorized and able to break it open and implement it.

And that's what Jesus does. I'd suggest that this is John's visionary way of describing what it means that Jesus has sat down on God's throne. Jesus has taken in hand the authority to move things along. And what follows throughout Revelation is exactly that. As Jesus breaks open the seals, judgments begin to spread throughout the earth, recurring over the course of the thousands of years it's been and however long it's going to be yet until the scroll reaches its conclusion. The point John is making, though, is that Jesus is the one breaking the seals. Jesus is the one who has the authority to turn the page. History in itself doesn't have progress, but Jesus makes it move, in his own mysterious way. That's Jesus' doing, because Jesus is in charge.

Now, Paul tells us that God “put all things under [Jesus'] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church” (Ephesians 1:22). Hebrews adds that, “in putting everything in subjection to him,” to Jesus, God “left nothing outside his control.” Everything that there is has been placed in Jesus' control. But we have to admit that, “at present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him” (Hebrews 2:8). Pointless though it may be, the world still tries to resist, still tries to run itself as if Jesus weren't in charge, as if Jesus weren't in command. And so what is Jesus doing now? He's waiting. He's waiting for the world to be pacified. He's waiting for the world to tire itself out. He's giving the world every chance to come to its senses. And then he will act by force. The Father had said to him, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool” (Psalm 110:1). And so Paul tells us that Jesus “must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Corinthians 15:25). Hebrews says that, ever since he ascended and was exalted to the throne of God, Jesus has been “waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet” (Hebrews 10:13). For now... Jesus waits.

So what does this teaching mean? Why does the session matter? Let's dive in. The first thing I'd like to point out is that the enthronement of Jesus has a major role in our salvation. And to get a handle on this, let's turn to Psalm 80. Along with Isaiah 5, these are two Old Testament passages we really ought to know better if we're fans of John 15. In John 15, Jesus calls himself God's Vine and calls his disciples, including us, his branches who need to abide in him in order to live. But why did Jesus pick that picture, why a vine? Because of these two chapters from the Old Testament, which present Israel as a vine or a vineyard. The eightieth psalm seems to be written in a time when Israel is in trouble, maybe specifically in the north. Here, God is called “the Shepherd of Israel” and said to “lead Joseph like a flock” (Psalm 80:1), and the psalmist will ask God to rescue “Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh,” all northern tribes (Psalm 80:2). And these tribes are in trouble, eating “the bread of tears” and drinking tears (Psalm 80:5), finding their prayers unanswered (Psalm 80:4), mocked by their neighbors (Psalm 80:6). Over and over again, a responding choir calls out, “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved!” (Psalm 80:7; see also verses 3 and 19).

The center section of the psalm introduces the picture of Israel as a vine: “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it; you cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches. It sent out its branches to the Sea and its shoots to the River” (Psalm 80:8-11). In other words, in Israel entering the Promised Land, this vine was planted and became great, as Israel became an influential power, a light to the nations. But for the psalmist, his present reality has become an aberration: “Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it” (Psalm 80:12-13). In other words, Israel has become vulnerable to attack, in ways that jeopardize God's work. “They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down” (Psalm 80:16).

So, the psalmist calls out, “look down from heaven and see: have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted, and for the son whom you made strong for yourself” (Psalm 80:14-15). It was God's right hand, his active strength, that cleared the way and planted Israel in their holy land. And God also gave strength to King David, who received the title 'son of God.' “But let your hand be on the man of your right hand, the son of man whom you have made strong for yourself! Then we shall not turn back from you; give us life, and we will call upon your name!” (Psalm 80:17-18). If God favors the king and lets him mount a successful defense of Israel, then the Israelites promise to be faithful this time around – the wake-up call will have been enough.

But what does that mean for us today? Well, note the choice to refer to the king here as “the son of man whom [God has] made strong for [him]self.” In the Church's bigger perspective, we can see that Jesus is the true Son of Man whom the Father has made strong for himself. It's King Jesus, as the greater heir of David, who is charged to be the defender of his people. And in praying for salvation, the psalmist asks God to support this Son of Man and save through him. And in particular, this Son of Man is also “the man of [God's] right hand.” That's the position to which Jesus has returned in his session, in his exaltation. He is the king enthroned at God's right hand, not just in an earthly Zion, but in the heavenly Zion, at the very throne of God on high. And it is precisely in that capacity that he can give salvation! Jesus is our Savior because he is the man at God's right hand. And because God seated him there and strengthens him, there is hope for God's devastated creation to repent and be restored. Picking up on this, one second-century Christian wrote that it's because Jesus “sits at the right hand of the Father” that he therefore “has the power to save all things.”1 That includes us! If you're glad to have a Savior, if you're glad that the world has a Savior, if you're glad that there's a King who can stand up to the beasts in the world and defend all things that are good, then you're glad that Jesus is at God's right hand!

Second, the session means something incredible about you. What are you? What species of thing are you? You – I at least assume – are a human being. That is very specific, because there are a lot of kinds of things out there that are not human. And there is no non-human created nature that has been placed on God's throne. Did God ever elevate an angel to his very own throne? Hebrews is very clear that the answer is no! “To which of the angels has he ever said, 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet'? Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” (Hebrews 1:13-14). No angel nature has ever been seated on God's throne. No cherubic nature or seraphic nature can find a place there. You will also never get to heaven and see a Martian sitting on God's throne. No Martian has been given that status and authority and dignity. Nor will you find a robot or computer on God's throne. Computers have not been put in that position. Robots do not run the universe. You will not find a dog or a cat or a chimpanzee or a horse on God's throne. Their various animal natures are not there. None of these will you find there.

But Jesus is the Son of Man. Jesus is human. A real human person has been seated on the throne. It is human nature that has been placed at the helm, not merely of governing the earth, but of governing the universe, from the nearest microbes to the farthest galactic superclusters. “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:3-4). “You have given him dominion over all the works of your hands, you have put all things under his feet” (Psalm 8:6). When Jesus was exalted, our dignity became vast. Think about it. All of heaven, all the rest of the aware universe, can look at you, and the thought they'll have is, “Hey, wow, you're the same species as the Boss Man!” You are the same species as the One who rules all things – the One at the highest place, the One who is most supreme. You are linked in a common nature to the Lord on the throne that rules over all! And since never can he be dethroned, never can human nature be dethroned! To be human is not to be an unworthy wretch. To be human is to be the most incredible thing in creation. Even the angels can have only a healthy sense of awe at human nature because human nature is exalted to the throne in Jesus Christ. How can any of us look down on being human, when being human is to bear family resemblance to the Enthroned Lord? Take heart, all human beings, and live into Jesus!

Third, the session is vital for us because it's the precondition for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Now, it will be a couple more weeks before we get to treating the Holy Spirit as his own topic – he has his own line in this Apostles' Creed, after all. But safe to say that having the Holy Spirit poured out on us is a positive thing. It was very important for the Holy Spirit to be poured out. Isaiah reminds us that when “the Spirit is poured upon us from on high,” then “the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest. Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field. And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever” (Isaiah 32:15-17). That sounds just so good, such a relief. But it only happens when the Spirit is first poured out.

Now, what does the session have to do with that? Well, the Apostle Peter is very explicit that the Holy Spirit would not have been poured out except by Jesus exalted to God's throne. On Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was in fact poured out, Peter announced, “Being exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (Acts 2:33). Jesus, publicly displayed as God, does what God always said he'd do: pour out the Spirit from heaven. Peter is clear that it required the exaltation of Jesus before he could do this. Jesus said that he would “send to you” the Holy Spirit “from the Father” (John 15:26). Everything we enjoy through having the Holy Spirit poured out, it's only possible because Jesus is exalted at God's right hand, enthroned on high, to do it.

Fourth, the session means that Jesus Christ is supreme over history. Jesus Christ was supreme during the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Jesus Christ was supreme during the coronation of Charlemagne. Jesus Christ was supreme during the Black Death. Jesus Christ was supreme during the Reformation. Jesus Christ was supreme during the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust. Jesus Christ was supreme through civil wars and world wars and cold wars. That does not mean that he approves of the horrific acts of man and nature. That does not mean that he sat idly by. Rather, for every disaster that has taken place in the past two thousand years, Jesus has personally mitigated it to be no harsher than is required by his overall plan. What we meant for evil, he steered toward redeemability. He always does. His fingerprints are all over the pages of each and every history book.

And that is incredibly important, especially now. So often today, we hear the slogan bandied about: “We're on the right side of history, you're on the wrong side of history.” The idea is that history is a natural direction, its own force, that carries things onward toward certain goals – which just so happen to be the goals desired by one or another faction in culture today. But the truth is a lot different. History is not a power. History is not its own force. History has no natural direction. It is steered, and not along a straight line, by the hand of Jesus. All our prognistications of where it's heading are based on present inertia and momentum. But Jesus has many tricks up his sleeves. Ascendant trends will fall. Supposedly outdated traditions will be the way of the future. And when history pulls into the station, it'll find itself at the foot of Christ's throne. If history is written by the winners, there's no bigger winner than the enthroned King of Kings. He will write the final verdict on human history and on cosmic history. He, as the Faithful and True Witness, will set the record straight once and for all. And there will be no further revision, no alternate telling, no subversive perspective.

Fifth, the session means that Jesus Christ is supreme over all trials and tribulations here and now. Just as Jesus was supreme through all of history's travails in the past, so Jesus is supreme even now. Jesus is on the throne, and the coronavirus is not. Jesus is on the throne, and cancer is not. Jesus is on the throne, and debt is not. Jesus is on the throne, and dementia is not. None of these things can rule your life. They can afflict severely. They can test. They can refine. They can provide opportunities for sanctification. But they cannot rule. They cannot set up their throne over you. To hold fast to Jesus Christ is to have a guarantee that there will be a day on the other side of them. Because their dominion extends only so long as he allows.

Sixth, the session means that Jesus Christ is supreme over all politics. Alexander the Great ruled vast swaths of the world, but he sat on a throne not nearly so high as Jesus'. No Roman emperor sat on a throne so high. No European monarch sat so high. And neither does any American president, or indeed, the entire constitutional regime. You may have your opinions about politics. You may be excited, you may be relieved, you may be unnerved, you may be disgusted, you may be apathetic about one or another president, or representative, or senator, or judge. But there is a banner that's higher than the American flag, and that's the cross. There's a truth that's higher than the constitution, and it's the resurrection. There's a polity that's grander than the United States of America, and it's the heavenly kingdom. There's a throne that's higher than any political office to which any man or woman can be elected or appointed – and it's higher than the voters, too. And that throne has Jesus seated on it. He is supreme over politics. Politicians and other mortal power-brokers can do things that he, for his purposes, allows. But they cannot rule in their own right. Their authority is predicated on Jesus being enthroned above them. If any political office-holder forgets that, they'll regret it. If any voter forgets that, they too will regret it. Presidential terms come and go. They matter – but only relatively, insofar as they impede or aid the church's work and human flourishing. But Jesus is King forever. King Jesus tells us to submit to those who sit on little thrones under his, because he authorizes them. Submit to the courts, submit to the laws, submit to the governor, submit to the president. We do it because in doing that, we obey Jesus. That submission is just never allowed to lead us into disobedience to the High King of Heaven. There, and only there, do we draw the line. There, where worldly powers think they can master us, there we inform them that we already have a Master. Because Jesus is on the throne.

Seventh, the session is the template for Christ's big offer for us. This same enthroned Jesus Christ extends you an invitation. As we discussed before, in spirit, by faith, you are already hidden with Christ in God, if you abide in him. In fact, Paul says, God “seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6-7). And “if we endure, we will also reign with him” (1 Timothy 2:12). Think about that! The goal of Jesus being enthroned in highest heaven is for you to also find a seat there – not on God's throne, of course, but as part of his government. If we overcome through faithful living in the face of temptation and hardship now, Jesus declares, “To the one who overcomes, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Revelation 3:21). Is there any hope greater than that?

So confess with joy: “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty!” Even this, he did for you. There he watches for you, there he prays for you, there he rules for you, there he waits for you. Glory to Jesus, the High King of Heaven! Until next time: Amen.