Credo: A Sermon Series through The Apostles’ Creed // pt.14a—“he is seated at the right hand of the Father”

Life can be tough for left-handed folks! Weirdly, there is a long history of anti-left-hand bias in much of the world stretching way back into antiquity. Consider these examples from a fascinating post entitled “History of Handedness—Ancient History.”

  • “There is some evidence that all of the early great civilizations of the world—from the ancient Mesopotamians to the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans—have been strongly biased towards the right hand. The right hand of the gods was considered to be healing and beneficent, while their left hand was used for curses or inflicting injury. The strongly anti-left Ancient Egyptians often depicted their enemies as left-handed while they were the righteous dextrals.”
  • “Plato…went so far as to blame left-handedness on inept mothers and nurses who failed to adequately school their children in the correct way of doing things.”
  • “…the Pythagoreans listed ten first principles, each of which consisted of pairs of opposites, and it comes as no surprise that right is listed on the same side as male, straight, light, good, etc, while left is listed alongside female, crooked, darkness and evil…”
  • “Alexander the Great…claimed to have conquered a country of left-handed people, although the claim is unsubstantiated.”
  • “According to some, wearing a wedding ring on the third finger of the left hand originated with the Romans, the idea being to fend off evil associated with the left-hand…”[1]

This phenomenon is reflected also in scripture. In Matthew 6:3, Jesus says, “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” Notice it is the right hand that is giving to the needy and the left hand is being told to mind its own business! Consider too, in Matthew 25, where the sheep (the saved) and the goats (the lost) are situated.

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.

Again, life can be tough for the left-handed! But in all seriousness, the right hand as an ancient symbol of power and authority is important for us to grasp when it comes to our understanding of what used to be called “the session” of Christ. Kevin J. Vanhoozer writes of “the session”:

The early church rightly understood that the drama of Christ includes his ascension, entry into heaven, and heavenly session (Lat. sessio = sitting down) at the right hand of the Father. Jesus’ session was an important part of apostolic teaching, figuring prominently in both the Apostles’ Creed and the earlier Roman Creed: sedet ad dexteram patris.[2]

So “the session” of Jesus refers to the sitting down of Jesus at the right hand of the Father. Hebrews 10 gives us one of many examples of this.

12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God

But, in fact, Jesus is not always depicted as “sitting” at the Father’s hand. Sometimes He is depicted as “at” the Father’s right hand or even “standing” there. Regardless, His “sitting” there is the traditional and dominant image and it carries with it numerous implications. For this reason, it is important that we understand it.

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Credo: A Sermon Series through The Apostles’ Creed // pt.13—“he ascended into heaven”

I chuckled this week when reading about the ascension of Jesus. The ascension refers to Jesus ascending to Heaven forty days after His resurrection. It is when His followers watch him go up to glory. I chuckled because one article on the ascension that I saw was entitled, “What’s Up with the Ascension?” What’s up indeed!

Evangelical Christians believe in the ascension, but that does not mean we really understand its significance. We may even feel conflicted about it. Why, after all, did Jesus not simply stay with His church in His resurrected body? How amazing would it be to have Jesus show up and silence the church’s critics and speak words to us audibly as we sit at his feet? But, even as we say this, we know that the ascension is important because Jesus is doing something important in Heaven at the Father’s right hand.

You can see this sense of conflicted feeling in the following two ascension poems. The first is a modern poem by James Matthew Wilson. He wrote:

Ascension Thursday: gone again.
My usual panic every year
Sets in as the Easter season ends;
I’d hoped to reconcile everything,
To feel, just once, grace tremble near,
In a resurrected, fiery ring.
But dry distraction settles in,
And with a crow’s beak pecks my breast
With hungers and regrets. Small sins,
On which I’d neither think nor cry
In ordinary time, impress
Themselves, while my unsettled eyes
Are elsewhere turned. But, suddenly robbed
Of His face after these un-tombed forty
Days—intimate meals now that the mob
Had killed and left him with its dread—
My stare falls on the table emptied
Of his presence.
What now, now that He’s fled?[1]

There is almost a note of despair about that, is there not? “Robbed of His face,” “the table emptied of his presence,” “What now, now that He’s fled?” This is not encouraging! But, on the other hand, we have the words of an earlier ascension hymn, W. Chatterton Dix’s 1866 “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus! His the scepter, His the throne,” which are decidedly more optimistic.

Alleluia! Not as orphans
Are we left in sorrow now;
Alleluia! he is near us;
Faith believes nor questions how.
Though the cloud from sight received him,
When the forty days were o’er,
Shall our hearts forget his promise:
“I am with you evermore.”[2]

So what is up with the ascension? How should we consider this simple but powerful line from the creed: “he ascended into heaven”?

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Credo: A Sermon Series through The Apostles’ Creed // pt.12—“on the third day he rose again”

In Eugene Peterson’s book, Living the Resurrection, he passes on a charming and thought-provoking story about wise words from a little girl.

Some time ago, my friend Brenda flew to Chicago for a visit with her daughter’s family, and especially with her granddaughter, Charity. Charity is five years old—a plump, cute, highly verbal little girl. Charity’s paternal grandmother had been visiting the previous week. She is a devout woman who takes her spiritual grandmothering duties very seriously, and she had just left.

The morning after Brenda’s arrival, Charity came into her grandmother’s bedroom at five o’clock, crawled into bed, and said, “Grandmother, let’s not have any Godtalk, okay? I believe God is everywhere. Let’s just get on with life.”

I like Charity. I think she is on to something.

Peterson explains what he likes about Charity’s comment.

It’s not that the Godtalk is untrue, but when it is disconnected from the ordinary behavior and conversation that make up the fabric of our lives, the truth leaks out. A phrase from Psalm 116:9—“I walk before the LORD in the land of the living”—clears the ground and gives some perspective on Charity and “let’s just get on with life.”[1]

And again:

I’m interpreting Charity’s five o’clock greeting to her grandmother as a diagnostic response to a way of life that somehow gets God and life disconnected and separated into two different categories. She missed something in the way her first grandmother talked about God, and she was hoping her second grandmother wouldn’t also miss it. I’m guessing that what she missed was life—the Life. Let’s get on with life.[2]

I share Peterson’s response to Charity’s (likely) meaning: our Godtalk should move seamlessly alongside, with, and throughout our lives. It should feel organic and not likely periodic lectures delivered in the cul-de-sacs of life. And I say this as a big fan of “Godtalk”! In fact, Godtalk is almost a literal rendering of theology, from theos, God, and logos, word. But that disconnect that Charity sensed is indeed a problem, that chasm between our Godtalk and our lives.

Easter is a great time for us to examine the problem of that disconnect, for our Godtalk about “resurrection,” if disconnected from the movements of our lives, undermines what we say. In fact, I would like to offer a thesis concerning this. But, first, I need to define two words:

ecclesiology: the doctrine of the church

apologetics: the defense of the faith

Here, then, is my thesis:

Thesis: The church is an ecclesiological apologetic for the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And that thesis itself rests on a foundational premise.

Premise: The best evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is neither intellectual argument nor a once-a-year resurrection extravaganza, but rather the consistent demonstration of resurrection power in our lives through acts of Jesus-shaped non-conformity and contrast to the fallen world order.

In other words, while the resurrection does indeed call for proclamation, for Godtalk, for preaching, its true power and significance is demonstrated in and through our lives. This thesis is no mere theory. Rather, it is born out of the witness of the New Testament. We will consider Acts 4:32–35 in this regard.

32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

My argument is that the church is the best evidence for the resurrection and that a text like this shows how this works. Specifically, the verse that sits at the very heart of this text, verse 13—And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.”—is the animating core of what precedes and follows it. In other words, the living witness of the apostles to the resurrection of Jesus led to certain fruits in the early Christian community that proved the apostolic witness.

In what ways does this text depict the church itself as evidence for the resurrection of Jesus?

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Credo: A Sermon Series through The Apostles’ Creed // pt.11—“he descended to the dead”

The theologian Michael Bird has passed along the words of probably the goriest hymn ever composed or sung!

Romanos the Melodist [5th-6th century] has a charming chorale piece called “The Victory of the Cross,” featuring a musical dialogue between the devil and Hades about the cross. The devil tells Hades that there is nothing to worry about, while Hades panics that he is about to have his stomach ripped open and all the peoples inside him let out. In the hymn we hear:

Hades saw the Lord, and said to those in Hell:

“O my priests and O my powers,

who has driven a spike into my heart?

A wooden lance has just pierced me; I am being torn in two

I feel it terribly; my breath is a whirlwind.

My insides burn. My belly churns in pain.

I am forced to vomit forth Adam and Adam’s people,

who were deposited with me because of a tree.

But a tree is now leading them

on the return to paradise.[1]

We all love the old hymns, but, I mean…

What is happening here? Romanos the Melodist’s depiction of Hades being concerned about losing her inhabitants is actually a very biblical notion, though in Protestant Evangelical circles we sometimes do not know this. In fact, the line in the creed, “he descended to the dead,” touches on these ideas. However, this is also likely the most confusing and controversial line in the entire creed for modern Christians to understand.

What does it mean that Christ “descended”? And what does this have to do with Hades and the dead and Sheol and all the rest?  Let us unpack this fascinating and misunderstood doctrine.

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Matthew 21:12–17

Matthew 21

12 And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 13 He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” 14 And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, 16 and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, “‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?” 17 And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there.

Earlier this year, I, along with our Associate Pastor Thomas Sewell and a few other pastors, had dinner at John’s Pizzeria in Times Square. I enjoyed the meal and it was made all the more intriguing by the atmosphere. John’s Pizzeria is, to say the least, architecturally interesting. The restaurant’s website gives a snapshot of its history.

In 1995, Madeline Castellotti had a vision. Where frightened visitors saw adult shops and violence, Madeline saw potential. It was then she decided Times Square would be home to the world famous John’s of Times Square. As she walked the Crossroads of the World, she was looking for a location that was as unique as her pizza. After stumbling upon an abandoned church on West 44th Street, where the homeless squatted and spray painted gang signs were apart of the décor, Madeline instantly saw the beauty of this old Gospel Tabernacle Church. During her initial tour of this location, the perfectly intact stained glass ceiling caught her attention. It was made up of 8 parts, all equal in size, just like a pizza. Madeline Castellotti knew this would be home to her dream, the most unique pizzeria in the world.[1]

Yes, pizza in a church, or a former church, I should say. One may wish that the 8-paned stained glass drew the observer to thoughts of God, but what Mrs. Castellotti saw there was pizza and so pizza is what that building is all about now. As I said, I enjoyed the meal. I had actually been there before and remembered it well. It was good to be back there. Even so, I must say it is a little eerie being a repurposed church, a church that is doing something other than what a church should be doing. There is something a bit sad about it, even if the pizza was great! I know that churches close and buildings change. More than that, I know that the church is not the building, but the people. Yet, it still strikes me as a sad development.

It is one thing for a sacred place to close and be repurposed. It is another thing, however, for the temple of God to be repurposed while yet still claiming to be the temple of God! This is what Jesus encountered in Matthew 21:12–17.

The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary does a good job of laying out Jesus’ approach to the temple.

Climbing the imposing steps on the southern end of the temple mount, Jesus enters the temple through the Hulda Gates located on the southern wall. The Huldah Gates, named after the prophetess Huldah (2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chron 34:22) were a double and triple gate. He then climbs another series of steps to four rows of forty thick columns each. The northern side opened into the temple courts, but within the Stoa was a market where commercial activity enabled pilgrims from the Diaspora to participate in temple activities. Here they exchanged their currency for temple currency, the Tyrian shekel, which was used to pay the required temple tax (17:24–27; cf. Ex. 30:11–16) and purchase animals and other products for their sacrifices.[2]

With this background in mind, let us consider Jesus’ surprising actions in the temple and why he responded the way He did.

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Credo: A Sermon Series through The Apostles’ Creed // pt.10—“was crucified, died, and was buried”

I have got to be honest about something: I am not a big fan of Charles Dickens. I have tried. I am just not a big fan. However, I do love A Christmas Carol! What a great story! In particular, I love the way that A Christmas Carol begins. Do you remember? Listen:

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to.

Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise?[1]

Well! One thing is clear: it was very important to Dickens that the reader understood that Jacob Marley, Ebenezer Scrooge’s former partner, was, in fact, dead. Why? Because in just a bit, Marley was going to visit Scrooge from beyond the grave! The certainty of Marley’s death lends force to the shock of Marley’s reappearance. Marley, of course, comes as a ghost. But Dickens needs the reader to understand: Marley really was dead.

The Christian story hinges in part on the fact that the hero of our story, Jesus, really and truly and actually died on the cross. Here is how the Apostles’ Creed puts it: “was crucified, died, and was buried.” It is as if the writer/s of the Creed likewise needed us to understand this, because they use three images, all of which speak of death: (1) He was crucified. (2) He died. (3) He was buried.

Why this emphasis? Why this repetition? Because the shock of Jesus’ reappearance hinges on the certainty of His death. Jesus really died. And yet, to our amazement, there are some who have challenged even this idea. So let us consider carefully “was crucified, died, and was buried.”

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Matthew 21:1-11

Matthew 21

And Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” 11 And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”

In Thomas Madden’s review of Jonathan Phillips’ book, The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saladin, he describes how the Muslim Saladin conquered and then triumphantly entered Jerusalem in 1187 AD (an event so shocking, Madden tells us, that Pope Urban III died after hearing about!). Many of the details are quite fascinating. He writes:

The conquest of Jerusalem was the centerpiece of Saladin’s career. He wanted it to be a religious moment, as well as high-profile revenge for the Christians’ capture of the city in 1099. According to Imad al-Din, Saladin proclaimed:

I wish to deal with Jerusalem in the same way that the Christians treated it when they took it from the Muslims . . . they inundated it with blood and did not permit a moment’s peace. I will cut the throats of their men and enslave their women.

But when Saladin laid siege to Jerusalem, its garrison commander, Balian of Ibelin, dissuaded him from this plan…Balian knew that Saladin had staked much on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the restoration of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount. Balian vowed to destroy these holy sites unless Saladin agreed to a peaceful surrender. Faced with that credible threat, the sultan agreed to terms of surrender. He then rode triumphantly into Jerusalem on October 2, 1187—the anniversary of Muhammad’s Night Journey.

Saladin’s approach to the inhabitants of Jerusalem is most interesting. Madden explains:

According to the surrender agreement, the conquered could ransom themselves at the cost of ten dinars per man, five per woman, and one per child. After payment, one received a receipt allowing departure from the city with whatever goods one could carry. There were approximately sixty thousand Christian men in the city and an unknown number of women and children. Since the ransoms were costly, people were forced to sell their goods to redeem themselves and their families. Merchants from neighboring territories swept into the area to take advantage of the bargains. Balian of Ibelin organized an effort to collect funds from wealthy Christians, the patriarch of Jerusalem, and the military orders that paid out thirty thousand dinars to redeem eighteen thousand poor. Others were allowed to leave without ransom as an act of charity on the part of Saladin or his supporters. Though most of Jerusalem’s Christian inhabitants managed to depart and make their way to Tyre, when all was said and done about sixteen thousand poor had been led to the slave markets of Egypt and Syria.[1]

Saladin’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem was markedly different from Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Consider:

  • Saladin came to Jerusalem wanting the blood of the people. Jesus came to Jerusalem to shed His blood for the people.
  • Saladin had to be blackmailed out of his desire to kill. Jesus willingly laid down His life.
  • Saladin made the inhabitants raise a ransom price to free themselves. Jesus died as a ransom payment to free us.

Two famous figures. Two triumphal entries into Jerusalem. But two very, very different events. May we be grateful that they were! Let us consider more closely the triumphal entry of Jesus.

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Credo: A Sermon Series through The Apostles’ Creed // pt.9—“suffered under Pontius Pilate”

Terrence Malick’s beautiful 2019 film, “A Hidden Life,” focuses on Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian conscientious objector during World War II. It is a powerful film. There is one scene in which Jägerstätter enters a church and has a conversation with Ohlendorff, a painter who is working on various paintings within the sanctuary. As he works on these paintings of Christ and other biblical figures and images, Ohlendorff says the following to Jägerstätter:

I paint the tombs of the prophets. I help people look up from those pews and dream…

I paint all this suffering but I don’t suffer myself. I make a living of it.

What we do is just create sympathy. We create admirers. We don’t create followers.

Christ’s life is a demand. We don’t want to be reminded of it so we don’t have to see what happens to the truth…

I paint their comfortable Christ, with a halo over His head. How can I show what I haven’t lived? Someday I might have the courage to venture, not yet. Someday I’ll paint the true Christ.

It is a heart-rending scene. It hits me especially hard as a pastor. Am I painting a comfortable Christ? Am I helping in the formation of admirers of the comfortable Christ instead of followers of the suffering Christ?

The painter Ohlendorff declares that he will “someday…paint the true Christ.”

We turn away from the suffering of Christ. Or, more precisely, we turn away from the suffering of Christ except in a transactional sense that benefits us. We do not mind His suffering insofar as it wins us our salvation. But what do we do with His suffering as it challenges our own comfortable lives? What do we do with His cross as a way of life, with His words from Matthew 16:24: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”?

He “suffered under Pontius Pilate,” the Creed tells us. What are we to make of this? What, in other words, are we to make of the suffering Christ? Why did He suffer and what does that mean for you and for me?

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Matthew 20:29–34

Matthew 20

29 And as they went out of Jericho, a great crowd followed him. 30 And behold, there were two blind men sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was passing by, they cried out, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 31 The crowd rebuked them, telling them to be silent, but they cried out all the more, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 32 And stopping, Jesus called them and said, “What do you want me to do for you?” 33 They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” 34 And Jesus in pity touched their eyes, and immediately they recovered their sight and followed him.

Maybe you have seen the movie “Cinderella Man,” starring Russell Crowe. Crowe plays the boxer James J. Braddock, who boxed in the 1930s. One of the more powerful and moving scenes in the movie is when Braddock, working on the docks and unable to support his family, has to go and explain his desperate plight to a room full of wealthy, nicely-dressed men, literally with his hat in his hand, and ask for $18.38 so he can get his children out of the hard labor job he had to “farm them out to” when he could not pay his bills. The men in the room listen in silence to his appeal and look at his extended empty hat. Finally, a few put some money in and wish him well. A few others turn away in disgust. Many look uncomfortable and embarrassed. It is a masterfully-done scene. It highlights both the indignity of begging and the social stigma that comes with it.

I suspect that is how it has always been with beggars: some give to them, some turn away in disgust, and many are just uncomfortable. There are also a couple of different reactions in the begging scene Matthew describes in Matthew 20:29–34. Some rebuke the beggars and attempt to get them to be quiet. But there is one who hears them, one who shows them mercy, one who gives.

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Credo: A Sermon Series through The Apostles’ Creed // pt.8—“who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary”

It is rare that I do a double-take on religion polling…but I did a double-take on this one. Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay released their 2022 “State of Theology” report[1], and one part of it actually stopped me in my tracks. Here it is:

Brothers and sisters in Christ, in 2020 30% of self-professed Evangelical Christians agreed with the statement, “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God.” 30% agreed that Jesus is not God. And last year that percentage increased to 43%.

43%…of Evangelicals…do not believe…that Jesus is God.

Church, this represents a staggering failure on the part of the church to teach theology and to teach theological teaching. This is why something like the Apostles’ Creed is so important, especially insofar as it prompts us to dive deeper into the doctrinal realities of our faith.

Lines 4 and 5 of the Creed are especially important here. Let us listen again:

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary

These two lines of the creed will help us establish two important biblical truths that will then lead us to our doctrinal understanding of who Jesus is. The two truths established by these lines are:

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit:         Jesus is fully God.
born of the Virgin Mary:                                Jesus is fully man.

Let us consider these truths.

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