Monday, May 24, 2010

The Creed of Christ - 1 Peter 1:20-21

Audio here (click to stream, right-click to download) and on our podcast on iTunes.

This Sunday, all over the world, in many kinds of churches, Christians will stand together and do as they do every Sunday, affirming their faith together in the recitation of the Apostle’s Creed. Baptists are perhaps in the minority because by and large we do not do this. If you were to ask an authority on Baptist doctrine and practice why we do not do it, you will likely hear it said, “We Baptists are not a creedal people.” What we mean by that is that we believe that Scripture alone is the authoritative rule of faith and practice, and therefore humanly composed statements of doctrine should not be used to impose belief upon another’s conscience. Baptists have always defended the rights of people to believe what they want to believe, even the right to be wrong. But if one is going to be called a Christian, then there are certain truths that must be believed and never denied.

Occasionally one may hear someone say, “I have no creed.” The word creed comes from the Latin word credo, which means, “I believe.” Therefore, a person who says, “I have no creed,” is really saying, “I have no beliefs.” There is no one alive who can say that. We all have beliefs, and therefore we all have creeds. Some Christians have said, “I have no creed but Christ.” While that sounds very humble and pious, it is too simplistic. It says, accurately enough, that I believe only in Christ, but it does not say what a person believes about Christ. Muslims believe in Christ, but they believe that He was only a prophet, and that He did not die on the cross. Buddhists believe in Jesus, but they believe that He was only one of many enlightened teachers. Mormons believe in Jesus, but they believe that He was originally the brother of Lucifer, or Satan, and many other strange ideas about Him. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in Jesus, but they believe that He was created as the Archangel Michael and became Michael again following a spiritual, but not physical resurrection. All of these, and many others, believe in Jesus; they believe something about Jesus; but none of these believe what the Bible teaches about Jesus. So, we may say that we have no creed but Christ, but the question is what is our creed of Christ? What do we believe about Him?

In our passage today, Peter says that we are believers in God through Christ. And in these two verses we find a concise yet profound description of what we believe about Christ. Some scholars have suggested that verses 18-21 originally were part of an ancient Christian hymn or creed that Peter has inserted here as a quotation. While that is possible, it is far from certain. Yet the statement here about Christ is so profound and thorough that we can draw from it a creed of sorts as we articulate what we believe about the Lord Jesus Christ. This then is the creed of Christ.

I. We believe in the eternally preexistent Christ. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world.

There’s a humorous story that philosophers tell about the origins of the universe. One ancient philosopher asked another, “If Atlas holds up the world, what holds up Atlas?” The other responds, “Atlas stands on the back of a turtle.” The first philosopher then says, “But what does the turtle stand on?” And the answer is given, “Another turtle.” Not satisfied, the inquisitive philosopher says, “And what does that turtle stand on?” Exasperated, the other finally says, “My dear friend, it’s turtles all the way down!”

When we study the history of the world, we can be tempted to think that it’s just turtles all the way down. Something came before this, and something came before that, until the point where there was nothing at all. But we must come to that point where there was nothing at all. So then the question is, “How did something come from nothing?” And secular science offers no plausible explanation for this. Therefore, in their theories, matter, the stuff of the physical world, must be eternal in some form or another. Turtles all the way down, with there being no point in time when there were no turtles, if you will. The Bible tells a different story. According to Scripture, there was a time when this world, this universe, did not exist, but there has never been a time when there was just nothing. Prior to the physical order coming into existence, God existed. Therefore, the Bible opens with these words: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Someone once asked Augustine what God was doing before he made the world, and Augustine quickly quipped that God was preparing hell for the inquisitive. While it may have silenced the questioner, it did not answer the question. What was He doing in eternity past? He was participating in the perfect fellowship and harmony of Himself, as Father, Son, and Spirit. The Triune God we worship always existed as He is revealed in Scripture: One God in Three Persons –God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. As Robert Leighton said so well several centuries ago, “Before there was time or place or any creature, God, the blessed Trinity, was completely happy in Himself.”

So, while we can point to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem as the point in time that Christ came into the world as a man, there was never a time when the Second Person of the Trinity did not exist. John puts it this way in the opening verses of his Gospel: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. … and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:1-3, 14). When Jesus prayed to the Father in John 17, He spoke of the glory which He had with the Father before the world was.

There was an occasion, recorded for us in John 8, when Jesus was engaged in a debate with some Jewish leaders, and He said to them, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” They understandably took exception to this and said, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” To this, Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I AM.” And the Bible says that they picked up stones to throw at Him (John 8:56-59). Now, why would they do that? Suppose someone said, “I was alive before Henry VIII.” Would you want to kill that person, or would you rather try to persuade that person to receive psychological attention? Stoning was not the prescribed punishment for insanity; it was the prescribed punishment for blasphemy. Those Jews understood that when Jesus said that “before Abraham was born, I AM,” He was making two specific claims. First, He was claiming the divine name, “I AM,” as His own; second, He was claiming the divine nature of eternal existence as His own. In other words, He was claiming to be God, and in their minds this was blasphemy.

Something similar happened later, recorded in John 10. On that occasion, Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.” And when He said this, once again, the Jewish people sought to stone Him. Jesus said, “I showed you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you stoning Me?” And the Jews said to Him, "For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God” (John 10:30-33).

These episodes from the life of Christ show us that Jesus claimed to be the eternal God, and that those claims were made clearly enough that those who heard Him knew what He meant and what the implications of His words were. It seems that our options are limited in how we respond to that. Like those who heard Him, we can disagree and affirm that it was right to kill Him for blasphemy; or we can dismiss Him altogether as a man who had lost all touch with reality; or we can believe Him. He is either a liar, a lunatic, or He is Lord. There are no other options. And we believe that He is who said He is. We believe that He is God, the second person of the Trinity, equally and eternally coexistent with God the Father and God the Spirit. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world.

II. We believe in the incarnate Christ. He … has appeared in these last times.

In the middle of World War II, C. S. Lewis was invited to give a series of talks on BBC Radio to encourage and comfort citizens of Britain who lived in daily fear of becoming yet one more European nation occupied by Nazi Germany. Surprisingly, in his talks, Lewis made an explicit case for faith in Jesus Christ and called his listeners to trust in Him. Those talks were later published in book form as Mere Christianity. In one section, Lewis speaks to war-weary Englishmen and says, “Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.” The rightful king is Jesus, and He has landed in this enemy-occupied territory in disguise, becoming one of us in the miracle we refer to as the incarnation.

As we have already stated, orthodox Christian faith understands that Christ is fully God. But in the incarnation, He became fully man. He did not stop being God in order to become man. Theologians have often said it this way: “Remaining what He was, He became what He was not.” That is, He continued to be fully God, as He had always been, but became what He had not been before, fully human. He was not half-God and half-man. He is both fully God and fully man.

He appeared, Peter says. This one simple word encapsulates so much truth. Herein is contained His miraculous conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary, His lowly birth in Bethlehem, His humble beginnings, about which Scripture is nearly silent, and His public ministry which began at His baptism and continued with Him traveling about teaching and performing miracles, remaining throughout His life completely without sin. In all of this, God was showing Himself to humanity through the person of Jesus Christ.

The New Testament is filled with narratives and theological descriptions of Christ’s incarnation and earthly ministry. Perhaps nowhere is it stated more eloquently than in Philippians 2:6-7, where Paul writes that “although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.” In 1 Timothy 3:16, Paul says He was “revealed in the flesh.” As we have already cited, John 1:14 says that this eternally preexistent Word which was with God and was God in the beginning, “became flesh and dwelt among us.”

In Galatians 4:4, we read, “When the fullness of time came, God sent forth His Son.” Peter says here that it was “in these last times” that Christ appeared. Historians have marked off time by the developments of politics and technology, so that we have “the colonial times,” “the bronze age,” and “the internet age.” But God has marked off time in this way: the coming of Christ into the world is the beginning of “the last times.” Prior to this time, God had spoken to the world, the writer of Hebrews says, “in many portions and in many ways,” but he says that He “in these last days has spoken to us in His Son” (Hebrews 1:1). All that came before Christ pointed forward to Christ. Now that He has appeared, God has spoken the final word. Luther said that these are the last times, “not because soon after … the last day would come, but because after this preaching of the Gospel of Christ, no other shall come, and there will be no better Gospel revealed and explained than that which is now explained and revealed. … No more preaching shall come into the world more glorious and more public than the Gospel; therefore it is the last.”

The New Testament writers use this phrase, “the last times,” and others like it to refer to all that occurs in the world between the incarnation of Christ and His future return. We do not know when that will occur. Jesus said plainly, “of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Mark 13:32). Jesus said, “Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Luke 12:40). But be sure of this, we are now perhaps closer to the end than to the beginning, and every day is one more day closer. So we must take the person of Jesus Christ seriously, we must take the Gospel to heart personally, and we must take our task to reach the nations sincerely, for the day is drawing near when that will no longer be possible. When Christ appeared, when God became flesh in the incarnate Jesus Christ, we entered the final chapter of history.

We believe in the incarnate Christ, in whom God has come to dwell among us as a man, and who is going to come again at the end of all things.

III. We believe in the suffering and dying Christ. He … has appeared … for the sake of you.

In what sense has Christ appeared for us? In the Nicene Creed, which dates to the 300s AD and is the most widely used creed by Christians of all branches around the world today, we find the following statement, “For us and for our salvation He came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human. For our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.” Three times in that brief portion of the Creed we read, “for us,” “for our salvation,” “for our sake.” All that Christ endured in His incarnation, His earthly life and ministry, His suffering and death, was for us.

In the verses immediately preceding these, Peter describes how this is so. In verses 18-19, he describes the futile way of life we inherited from our forefathers, which includes the sin nature we were born with and are enslaved to. We are captive under sin until redemption comes. And in Christ, that redemption has come through the shedding of His precious blood. He is the perfect sacrifice for our sin, the lamb unblemished and spotless, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In Paul’s great passage on the incarnation in Philippians 2 that we referred to earlier, he writes, “He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). In Hebrews 12:2, we read, “for the joy set before Him [He] endured the cross, despising the shame.” What was the joy that was set before Him? It was the joy of reconciling sinful human beings to their maker through His death. In His suffering and death, He received in Himself that which our sins deserve. He became our substitute, receiving the wrath of the holy Father God in His own person, that we might be forgiven and made righteous by faith in Him.

He didn’t have to do this. Think about all that Jesus suffered. He suffered scorn, rejection, mockery, brutality, and death, even the most torturous form of death humanity has ever known, that of crucifixion. Jesus said, “No one has taken [my life] away from Me, but I lay it down on my own initiative. I have authority to lay it down.” So we do not need to see Jesus as a helpless victim of all that took place leading up to and including His death. He did not have to do it. But He did it, why? He did it for us. He said in Luke 19:10 that He had come “to seek and to save that which was lost.” We are the lost; lost in our sins. Christ came to save us. How did He do this? He said in Mark 10:45 that He had come to give His live “as a ransom for many.” Taking our place in death, He paid the penalty that our sins deserve, as our substitute, with His blood, His very life, being poured out for us, for our sake, for our salvation.

We believe in the suffering and dying Christ.

IV. We believe in the risen and exalted Christ. God … raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory.

I am a huge sports fan, most people know that. I am huge, and I am a sports fan. I love watching games, I love attending games. I was at a Baltimore Orioles game many years ago, they were playing the Detroit Tigers. Now, the Baltimore Orioles, you understand, are not good. Not now, not then. And, the Tigers were winning by a lot of runs. So, in about the seventh inning, people started filing out of Camden Yard, but we decided to stay. By the ninth inning, you could count the people on one hand in our section; it was us, and a couple of drunk guys in front of us. There were two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and it looked like the Orioles were a pitch away from losing badly. But things turned around. One run at a time the Orioles came back and tied it, and finally knocked in the winning run. What few of us were left there in the stadium were jumping up and down celebrating, and the drunk guy in front of me, who was now also shirtless, turned around to give me a big hug, and I was just praying that a picture of that embrace didn’t show up on the front page of the Baltimore Sun the next day.

What’s the point? Sometimes when things look like they are over, they aren’t really over. When Jesus died on the cross, it looked like it was over didn’t it? Now, He had said repeatedly that He would die and that He would rise from the dead, but no one really took it to heart. When His body was stretched out on that cross, bloody and broken, no one was saying, “Just wait, it’s not over yet, He’s going to come back.” Everyone thought it was all over. But it wasn’t. Human language is insufficient to describe the miracle that took place next. Peter gives it just a few words: “God … raised Him from the dead.” It wasn’t some spiritual, ethereal, disembodied resurrection that some have claimed – it was physical; it was bodily. He was raised with flesh and bones, He ate, people touched Him, He was physically risen from the dead. The tomb was empty and Christ presented Himself alive, Acts 1:3 says, “by many convincing proofs.”

Because Christ is risen from the dead, our sin, its penalty and its punishment have not only been satisfied, but have been conquered. Peter said in verse 3 of this chapter that the resurrection of Jesus makes it possible for us to be born again. In Romans 4:25, Paul says that He was raised for our justification, meaning that we can be made righteous before God because Christ is risen. And because Christ is risen, we have the promise repeated throughout the New Testament that we who believe in Him by faith will rise from death just as He did. Life will go on beyond the grave, and though for a season, it may be in a mysterious, disembodied form, as Paul talks about being “absent from the body,” but “present with the Lord,” it will culminate in the resurrection of our own bodies from the grave, transformed and glorified just as His was.

Jesus was not raised from death in the same way that some others were raised from death. Take Lazarus for example. He died, and Jesus raised him from the dead. Then guess what happened later? He died again. But Jesus was raised from death forever. For forty days, He appeared among His disciples, and then ascended into heaven. Peter says here that God “gave Him glory.” The glory that Jesus had before the world began, He returned to receive in heaven once again. And the writers of the New Testament tell us that He is alive in heaven today, seated at the right hand of the Father in the fulfillment of prophecy and in exalted glory. The writer of Hebrews compares Jesus to the priests of Israel in Hebrews 10, and he says there, “Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.” The priest of the Old Testament’s job was never done. Every day, he stood there by the altar offering sacrifice after sacrifice, which could cover sin, but couldn’t take it away forever. But this is what He says about Christ in comparison: “but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, SAT DOWN AT THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD” (Hebrews 10:11-14). The work of redemption, the work of atonement for sin, the work of the salvation of humanity was done, forever done in this one perfect sacrifice, and as a result, our High Priest Jesus could sit down. He sat down in the place of glory and honor, at the right hand of the Father. From there, He has poured out His Spirit upon His people; from there He intercedes for His people before the Father as our High Priest, pleading His nail-scarred wounds for our justification. And from there, He will rise to meet us when we pass from this life into eternal life. As Stephen was being stoned to death in Acts 7, the Bible says that he was filled with the Holy Spirit, and he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Stephen said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” And as he died, he cried out to the exalted Christ, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” (Acts 7:55-59).

We believe in the risen and exalted Christ.

This is our creed of Christ. We believe in the eternally preexistent Christ. We believe in the incarnate Christ. We believe in the suffering and dying Christ. And we believe in the risen and exalted Christ. Through Him, Peter says here, we are believers in God. It is vain to believe in God in any other way. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” We have no other means of access to God, in faith, in worship, in prayer, or in eternal salvation but through this Christ in whom we believe. So, as Peter says, our faith and our hope are in God – this God who is Triune, the Father and the Son and the Spirit; this God who incarnated Himself in the person of Jesus; this God who accomplished our redemption through the suffering and death of Christ; this God who has raised the Lord Jesus from death and exalted Him and given Him the name above every name, that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10-11). This is our creed. I hope that it is your creed. It is the only creed we have. Do you believe it?

G. A. Studdert Kennedy, Anglican priest and chaplain during World War I, once said the following:

“If our creed is only a form, that may be our fault, not the creed's. You can bet on this--You don't really believe your creed until you want to say it standing at spiritual attention with the roll of drums in your ears, the light of love dazzling your eyes, and all the music of a splendid world crashing out a prelude to its truth. If your creed is dull, it is dead, or you are dead, and either one or the other of you must be made alive again. Either you must change your creed, or your creed must change you. That is the problem that faces us--are we to change the Christian creed, or is the Christian creed to change us? I'm betting on the creed every time.”

If Christ is our creed, and these are the divinely revealed truths about Him, then we can never change it. Rather, we must believe it, and believing it, we must allow this creed to change us as Christ works in us for His glory. We invite you today to examine your creed, your beliefs, particularly those about Christ. What do you believe? Do you believe He is fully God and fully man? Do you believe that He suffered and died for you and for your salvation? Do you believe that He is risen from the dead and exalted in glory? Do you believe He is coming again? This is what the Bible teaches about Him. If you believe this, I would challenge you to recommit yourself freshly to Him today to walk with Him, and live for Him, and allow Him to use your life completely for His glory. If you do not believe this, or if you have never believed this before today, I challenge you to consider these claims, and give your life to Jesus as your Lord and Savior even this day.

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