Know What You Believe – A series based on The Apostles’ Creed – Part 3
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.
Just who is Jesus Christ? Who is Jesus Christ to you? Have you repented for sin and put your faith in Jesus Christ?
These are the three most important questions in human history.
Remember, a couple of sermons ago I mentioned I was reading The Da Vinci Code? Well, I finally finished it. It seems like everywhere I go, I see people engrossed in their reading of this novel. If they recognize me as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, both believers and non-believers pepper me with questions about this book.
One of the major reasons we should have doctrinal preaching is to speak to the day in which we live; God’s Word, distinguishing between truth and error.
This novel by Dan Brown is a good read. At the same time, reader beware.
First of all, he has made some very basic historical errors.
He declares that, for the first three centuries, the early Christians did not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. False.
He attributes to a lost “Q” document, specific writings of Jesus. False. That document, if there was one, has been deemed by scholars to contain a written record by others of some of the teachings of Jesus.
He refers to the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in the 1950s, as early documents that he says repudiate the Church’s claim for Christ’s divinity. False. Not only was he wrong in the dating of the discovery of the first Dead Sea Scrolls – they were actually found in the 1940s – but these documents date back to hundreds of years before Jesus, containing copies of some of the Old Testament writings, as well as other inter-testamental writings.
He declares that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a sexual relationship, with physical offspring that can be traced down to the present day. False. There is absolutely no evidence, biblical or extra-biblical, for such a claim.
He also declares that, for the first three centuries, followers of Jesus never made claims for His divinity. That all came about when the pagan ruler, Constantine, for his own political purposes, declared Jesus to be divine. False. The New Testament itself is clear witness to the apostolic faith of Jesus Christ as God in human form. Even the most casual study of the first three centuries would prove the absurdity of this argument coming from the lips of one of the key characters in this novel.
But the two biggest issues that can be confusing to the reader of this novel come down to matters of faith, when one of Brown’s characters declares that Constantine’s establishment of the divinity of Jesus was critical to the further unification of the Roman Empire and to the new Vatican power base: “By officially endorsing Jesus as the Son of God, Constantine turned Jesus into a deity who existed beyond the scope of the human world, an entity whose power was unchallengeable. This not only precluded further pagan challenges to Christianity, but now the followers of Christ were able to redeem themselves only via the established sacred channel – the Roman Catholic Church.” He continues, “It was all about power. Christ as Messiah was critical to the functioning of Church and state. Many scholars claim that the early Church literally stole Jesus from His original followers, hijacking His human message, shrouding it in an impenetrable cloak of divinity, and using it to expand their own power.” False!
In the Sunday, September 21, 2003, Charlotte Observer, H. Gregory Snyder, professor of religion at Davidson College, wrote a superb review of this best-seller titled, “Da Vinci Code Set on Unsound Ground.” He delineates in even more specific detail than do I the factual errors in this novel, concluding his article with these words: “While I could raise more objections, it would be wrong to end on a carping note. The Da Vinci Code is exciting, even if it cannot be taken as gospel where early Christian history is concerned. Let the reader beware, but let the reader enjoy.”
I make this sermonic reference to a best-selling novel only to underline our susceptibility to historical and theological error, especially when it is presented in a beguilingly interesting form. This novel will slip from the best seller list in the not-too-distant future. Yet there have been those before and will be those to come who will confuse sincere men and women.
This has been the sad contribution of the Jesus Seminar, which has endeavored to detract from the historic, orthodox teachings of the Christian Church by analyzing the biblical record with philosophical presuppositions that assume there is no possibility the divine would be revealed.
Luke Timothy Johnson, in his book, The Creed, writes:
For them, historical study deals with verifiable events in time and space. The historical equals the real. If something is not historical, neither is it real. The historian must exclude divine causes as a matter of principle, because the divine is not an object that historians can study. This is legitimate. What is illegitimate, however, is the shift from recognizing that history cannot deal with wonders to saying that miracles cannot be known by any means, or that miracles do not happen. That shift is precisely what happened in the search for the historical Jesus “apart from faith.” That which faith asserted is essential to knowing Jesus properly and fully was first excluded as historically unknowable and then increasingly denied. The “Real Jesus,” therefore, could only be a Jesus stripped of divinity. But a Jesus stripped of divinity is just another human.
Today we come to what theologians refer to as the Second Article in The Apostles’ Creed, which reads, “I Believe . . . in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord . . . “
Faith has a focal point. That focal point is Jesus Christ.
The theologian, Karl Barth, in his Dogmatics in Outline, writes:
With this paragraph we pass into the heart of the Christian confession, whose text is indeed distinguished by particular explicitness and which is not only outwardly the heart of it all. Even in our introduction to these lectures, when we were speaking of faith, and in the first lecture, when we spoke of God the Father, the Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, we could not avoid continually pointing to this centre. We could not possibly have given a genuine exposition of the first article without continually interpreting it by means of the second. Indeed, the second article does not just follow the first, nor does it just precede the third; but it is the fountain of light by which the other two are lit.
He goes on to declare that every Christian confession flows out of a shorter and indeed probably quite short primitive form which today is contained in these words of our focus. This most basic exclamation of the early church was “Jesus Christ is Lord!” This is the essence of our faith declaration. As we further reflect on Scripture, we receive from it our theology of the First Article dealing with God in the person as Father, and in the Third Article as God in the person of the Holy Spirit.
Again, let me quote from Luke Timothy Johnson, who declares in his book The Creed:
The creed does not ascribe divinity to Jesus as the result of a long development, as though the first Christians considered Jesus simply a man and only much later did their successors attribute divinity to him. The earliest Christians seem to have seen both his deepest sharing in their humanity and his divine power. Such, at least, is the evidence of the earliest writings, composed by those caught up by the experience of the resurrection.
Let’s look at the key words in this affirmation. “I Believe . . . in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.”
I. First, “I Believe . . . in Jesus.” In this name we see Jesus in the fullness of His humanity.
To you and me, the name Jesus is a sacred name. I doubt that any one of us have given that as a name to our children. However, at the time Jesus was born, it was a common Jewish name. In parts of Latin America and Spain, it still is a common name.
Jesus is the Greek expression for the Hebrew name Joshua. In the first century, it was one of the most common of all names. At least five Jewish high priests were named Jesus and, in the works of the Jewish historian Josephus, there appear about twenty people called Jesus, ten of them contemporary with our Lord.
So you can see that the very name itself marks out Jesus from the start as a man among other men. It is no accident that this credal statement begins with a word that connotes His humanity.
But there is an additional dimension to this name Jesus, which is embodied in the Hebrew name Joshua, with its variant spelling of Yeshua. This literally means “Jehovah saves!” In the very human name of Jesus we have the anticipation of His earthly purpose. We can build on that from the biblical record, describing events even prior to His conception. Remember, Mary was told by the angel that the power of the Holy Spirit would come upon her and that she would conceive and bear a child. When her fiancé, Joseph, heard about her pregnancy, he prepared to divorce her, assuming that she had been unfaithful to him. According to Jewish law, an engagement can be broken only by divorce. Engagement in that culture was a more serious commitment than it is in ours. Remember how the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and said to him, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21).
So we see that, even in the human name for Jesus – a common first century name – there is this prophetic dimension of salvation.
II. Second, “I Believe . . . in Jesus Christ.” In the word Christ we see the relationship of Jesus to God’s people in history.
The word Christ is the same word as the word Messiah. Christ is the English word. The Greek word is Christos. The equivalent Hebrew word is Messiah. These three words literally mean “the anointed one.”
The whole idea embodied in this is that God has sent a special ambassador with a particular ministry in mind. The constant refrain throughout the Old Testament is the promise that the Messiah will come, the anointed one will come and bring deliverance to His people.
There was a first-century expectancy on the part of the Jews who awaited the coming of the Messiah. Even that woman of questionable activity that Jesus met at the well in Samaria lived in an expectation of the coming of the Messiah. As she tried to debate Jesus in theological discourse, in essence she declared that “although there are many things we do not know, we do know that God is going to send His Messiah.” Listen in on the conversation. It goes like this in John 4:23-26. Jesus says, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
In the Old Testament, there were three kinds of people who were anointed by God. They were prophets, priests and kings.
The prophet was someone who would bring God to humankind. Sometimes the message was unpopular and many prophets were killed for their message.
Some were priests. Their job was to bring men and women to God. The priest was a mediator, an intermediary who takes a person by the hand and leads him into the presence of Almighty God. This was one of the functions of Jesus Christ.
The anointed one was also a king who would lead, guide and direct the people of God in the ways of God.
So you see that there is something very important in referring to Jesus as “The Christ.”
III. Third, “I Believe . . . in Jesus Christ his only Son.” It is here we see Jesus in His very relationship to God as divine.
The early church struggled to figure out the mystery involved in who Jesus really was. I urge you to familiarize yourself with the debates which marked the first five centuries of church history. There were those who emphasized the deity of Jesus to the neglect of His humanity, and there were those who emphasized His humanity to the neglect of His deity. Part of the credal formulations, especially in the A.D. 325 Nicene Creed, was an endeavor to make some kind of doctrinal formulation as to the nature of Jesus Christ. If you are fascinated by this topic, I urge you to do some study of church history. You will discover that there are no heresies today that were not present in the early centuries of the Christian Church.
I did my thesis for a master’s degree in American history on the topic, “The Fundamentalist-Liberal Controversy of the 1920s in the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America.” Some of the struggles we have today in our denomination involve issues debated at that time. One of the leaders on the liberal side of that debate was a man named Harry Emerson Fosdick. He articulated the notion that in Christ, humanity becomes God. Jesus Christ’s highest personification of humanity demonstrates for us how to utilize fully and develop to its greatest potential the divine spark with which all of us are born. By employing His example and listening to His teachings, we, too, can grow spiritually into a greater oneness with the divinity that is in all of us.
We must not entirely dismiss some elements of truth in these notions. We are to follow the example of Jesus. We are to love each other as He commanded. There are teachings He gave which, if followed, would make this world a much better place in which to live.
But this is not the essence of the Christian faith. The historic, orthodox faith has its roots clearly founded in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. It is clear that, in Christ, God became a man.
In the creed, we declare that we believe Jesus Christ is God’s only Son. This puts to rest those notions that because we are created in the image of God, we, therefore, are also sons and daughters of God in the same way as Jesus. Granted, God is Father. We, as His creation, are allowed to see ourselves as His sons and daughters. The difference is, though, that we are not God. We are not “begotten” or “conceived” by God in the same way as Jesus Christ. We are creature, not creator. Jesus Christ is creator, not creature. He and the Father are one.
Can you see why it is so important for us to make this distinction between who we are and who Jesus Christ is?
Do you capture this truth? Even as we see Jesus Christ as fully man, anointed, sent by God, we must add this third dimension. There are other people who are fully human, anointed by God, but Jesus is different. He is unique.
William Barclay, in his book The Apostles’ Creed for Everyman, makes some fascinating observations.
He notes that to call Jesus God’s only Son is to state that Jesus’s relationship with God is not a relationship which is in any sense achieved, but one that is completely personal. A man cannot become a son of his father. He either is a son or isn’t a son, in terms of essential nature. This is not something that is acquired or alterable, but is permanent. That’s why Scripture declares that we are adopted sons and daughters of God. We are different in nature, but He chooses us as His creatures, redeemed by the blood of His only Son to be His children.
Barclay notes that there is a paradox of equality and subordination. The Son is very different to his Father from a slave or servant and yet, with all the equality that comes from that blood lineage, there still is a degree of subordination. The very phrase, “only Son,” is summed up in a double relationship.
Barclay further notes that there are certain privileges which belong to the Son, because He is the Son.
The Son has a special knowledge of the Father. The Son is given a special revelation of God’s purposes, plans, actions and truth. The Father has given to the Son His own life, making the Son the agent by which life, spiritual regeneration, comes to humankind. The Father has given the responsibility of judgment. The privileges of the Son are summed up in the statement that what the Father has is the Son’s, “All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:15).
Barclay goes on to note that just as the Son has a whole set of privileges in relation to the Father, He also has a whole set of tasks and responsibilities. The Son is sent to function at the disposal of the Father, commissioned for any task the Father wishes to assign to Him. And the Son is called to live in willing obedience to the commands and will of the Father. That gives us a bit of insight, does it not, into how Jesus Christ – fully human, fully divine – could agonize in the Garden of Gethsemane, yearning to be freed of the physical, emotional and spiritual torture of His betrayal, trial and crucifixion and, at the same time be determined to do the will of the Father who had sent Him.
You see the great paradox of this Father-Son relationship? In one way they are equal. In another way, the Son is completely subordinate to the Father and can declare, as He does in John 14:28, ” . . . the Father is greater than I.” You see, Jesus Christ is the Son of God because He is the love of God incarnate, in a human person. He is one in nature with the Father, different in person, but with that perfect bond of love and unity. Let me tell you that, although we can approximate some understanding of this, we as humans must ultimately see this as mystery.
IV. Fourth, “I Believe . . . in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.” In this we see the fullness of the relationship of Jesus Christ to you and me!
The word in the Greek for Lord is kurios. It appears with great frequency throughout the New Testament in reference to Jesus Christ. It is very interesting to note that in its Hebrew form it appears as the word Adonai, which is, throughout the Old Testament, translated “Lord,” making direct reference to God. Some people will challenge this, declaring that Jesus never claimed overtly to be God. That’s where it is important to understand that throughout the Gospels there is abundant evidence that He was convinced that He was Lord, kurios.
Remember the occasion when Thomas doubted whether or not Jesus was risen from the dead? He had to see Him with his own eyes. When he did, Thomas fell at His feet and declared, “My Lord and my God!”
I love the way Stuart Briscoe comments on this: “Jesus didn’t say, ‘Don’t say that. Good night! You are going to get us all in trouble. I don’t want anybody saying I am Lord. And I certainly don’t want anybody saying I am God. Do you realize what is going to happen if these Jewish leaders hear you saying that? You dummy! Don’t say that again!’ “
No, He didn’t say that. He stood there and allowed Thomas to kneel at His feet. He affirmed him. Jesus Christ simply and clearly claimed to be Lord.
Lordship involves ownership.
If Jesus Christ is your Savior and Lord, it means that you are His. You desire to do what He wants you to do, be what He wants you to be, go where He wants you to go. After all, you have been bought with a price. He has purchased your freedom on the cross. You are no longer owned by Satan.
Lordship involves His sovereignty.
Are you willing for Jesus Christ to be in charge of your life? Do you pledge your allegiance to Him? Do you bow before Him in worship, in gratitude for all that He has done for you? Do you see Him as the One who is in charge?
As a five-year-old child, I accepted Jesus Christ as Savior. That was a very important moment in my life. It took me nine years to come fully to grips with what it was to have Jesus Christ not only as my Savior, but as my Lord. That meant that I was willing to live a life of obedience to His Word and bow before His ownership and His sovereignty in my life. I still remember pacing back and forth on that practice football field in the darkness of a cold early spring in the Chicago area, wrestling with whether or not I was willing to surrender my relationships, my intellect, my sex life, my career, my future marital status, to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Next to receiving Jesus Christ as Saviour, my willingness to let go of those areas and every other area of my life to His Lordship was the most important decision I have ever made. Wherein I am faithful to that decision, my life is blessed. Wherein I try to renegotiate and momentarily allow myself to become my own lord, there’s trouble.
Remember in our last message I shared with you the tortuous process by which, after three decades of atheism, C. S. Lewis, then in his thirties, came to believe there was a God. Today, let me complete that story by sharing how he came, both intellectually and emotionally, to accept Jesus Christ as his Saviour and Lord. Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., in his masterful book on C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud titled, The Question of God, has carefully researched and documented this process.
Although, after decades of struggle, Lewis finally declared himself to be a theist, he found himself confused about the doctrines of the New Testament, and wondered about the relevance of the Gospel story to modern life. “What I couldn’t understand was how the life and death of Someone Else (whoever he was) 2000 years ago could help us here and now . . .” He found expressions like “propitiation, sacrifice and the blood of the Lamb either silly or shocking.” He wrote: “My puzzle was the whole doctrine of redemption.” Yet the fact that the hard-boiled, atheist-historian T. D. Weldon believed in the historical authenticity of the Gospels haunted Lewis. No longer could he see the Gospels as myths. “I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. They had not the mythical taste.” In myth, the writer builds up the life of the primary character, setting the scene for the epic action. The Gospel writers had very little to say about the first thirty years of the life of Jesus.
As an atheist, Lewis had dismissed Jesus of Nazareth as a “Hebrew Philosopher,” another great moral teacher. Now he began to see this figure in a different light: “. . . as real, as recognizable, through all that depth of time, as Plato’s Socrates or Boswell’s Johnson . . . yet also numinous, lit by a light from beyond the world, a god. But if a god – we are no longer polytheists – then not a god, but God. Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact, the Word flesh, God, Man.”
Lewis began to realize that this Person made unique claims about himself – claims that, if true, ruled out the possibility of his being a great moral teacher. First, Lewis points out that Jesus made the “appalling claim” to be the Messiah, to be God. He quotes Jesus Christ saying, “I am begotten of the One God, before Abraham was, I am.” Lewis continues: ” . . . and remember what the words ‘I am’ were in Hebrew. They were the name of God, which must not be spoken by any human being, the name which it was death to utter.” As a philologist, Lewis focuses on passages in the New Testament that refer to Christ as “begotten, not created” and “only begotten son.” Lewis explains that “to beget is to become the father of: to create is to make . . . What God begets is God, just as what man begets is man. What God creates is not God; just as what man makes is not man. That is why men are not Sons of God in the sense that Christ is.”
Lewis noticed that this Person also claimed to forgive sins, to forgive what people did to others. He wrote later: “Now unless the speaker is God, this is really so preposterous as to be comic. We can all understand how a man forgives offences against himself . . . But what should we make of a man . . . who announced that he forgave you for treading on other men’s toes and stealing other men’s money?”
Lewis argues that the claim of Jesus to be the Messiah and to forgive sins rules out the possibility of His being simply a great moral teacher. Here he was influenced by Chesterton. In The Everlasting Man, Chesterton pointed out that no great moral teacher ever claimed to be God – not Mohammed, not Micah, not Malachi, or Confucius, or Plato, or Moses, or Buddha: “Not one of them ever made that claim . . . and the greater the man is, the less likely he is to make the very greatest claim.” Later Lewis closed a chapter in his most widely read book, Mere Christianity, with these words: “A man who was merely a man and said the things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic . . . or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. . .You can shut him up for a fool; you can spit at Him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
Chesterton profoundly influenced Lewis’s acceptance of “the Incarnation,” the astounding conviction that the Creator of the universe actually stepped into human history. Chesterton writes that the New Testament story “is nothing less than the loud assertion that this mysterious maker of the world has visited his world in person. It declares that really and even recently, or right in the middle of historic times, there did walk into the world this original invisible being; about whom the thinkers make theories and the mythologists hand down myths; the Man Who Made the World. That such a higher personality exists beyond all things had indeed always been implied by the best thinkers, as well as by all the most beautiful legends. But nothing of this sort had ever been implied in any of them . . . The most that any religious prophet had said was that he was the true servant of such a being . . . The most that any primitive myth had ever suggested was that the Creator was present at the Creation. But that the Creator was present . . . in the detailed daily life of the Roman Empire – that is something utterly unlike anything else in nature. It is the one great startling statement that man has made since he spoke his first articulate word . . . it makes nothing but dust and nonsense of comparative relation.” The word “Gospel” means good news. Chesterton notes that it is “news that seems too good to be true.”
Lewis continued to read the Bible seriously, noting that none of the main characters, except one, kept the moral law. Adam blamed Eve, Abraham lied about his relationship to Sarah, David committed adultery and murder, the Apostle Peter denied knowing Jesus. All this drove home the point that no one except God Himself could keep the moral law.
Lewis began to see his years as an atheist as years lived in “willful blindness.”
On the evening of September 19, 1931, he invited two close friends – Dyson and Tolkien – for dinner. They discussed myth and metaphor as they strolled the Oxford campus and talked into the wee hours of the morning. Twelve days later, Lewis wrote to a friend, Arthur Greeves: “I have just passed on . . . to definitely believing in Christ. I will try to explain this another time. My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.” He writes, “Conversions happen in all sorts of different ways: some sharp and catastrophic (like St. Paul, St. Augustine, or Bunyan), some very gradual and intellectual (like my own).”
But how exactly did this take place? He writes that he knows “when” it happened but not exactly “how.” He was on a motorcycle heading to the Zoo. He writes: “When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the Zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion . . .” He then uses a rather striking yet familiar metaphor: “It was more like when a man, after a long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.”
Are you willing in faith to declare these words of The Apostles’ Creed? Do you, from your very soul, affirm them? “I Believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord . . . ”
If so, thank God for His enablement. If not, open your life to Him now. Tell Him about your doubts and trust Him as Saviour and Lord.
I never before have concluded the sermon with the biblical text on which it was based. Today I know no better way. Hear the Word of the Lord:
May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him – provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. (
This is one of a series of sermons based on The Apostles Creed. Additional sermons from that series will appear in Preaching On-Line in March, April and May.
John A. Huffman, Jr. is the Senior Minister at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA. He is a Senior Contributing Editor to Preaching