Know What You Believe – A series based on The Apostles’ Creed – Part 5
He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.
“I Believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell . . . “
Various visual images come to my mind as I think of today’s phrases from The Apostles’ Creed. I’ve selected three movie clips to illustrate today’s concentration on the cross of Jesus Christ.
The Apostles’ Creed says that Jesus ” . . . suffered under Pontius Pilate . . . . ” How graphic are those scenes of His suffering!
The Apostles’ Creed says that Jesus ” . . . was crucified . . . ” Crucifixion, as you can see, is one of the most excruciatingly painful experiences possible!
The Apostles’ Creed says that Jesus was ” . . . dead, and buried; he descended into hell . . . ” We know the circumstances of Jewish burial. We see His loved ones as they prepare His body for the tomb.
A footnote here to respond to a frequently asked question: What does the creed mean when it says that ” . . . he descended into hell . . . “?
Many people are confused, for they understand hell to be the place of eternal punishment for sin. Does it mean that that’s where Jesus went? No, it is declaring that He went to what the Hebrews refer to Sheol, or what the Greeks referred to as Hades, which literally means “the land of the dead” or “the place of the departed spirits.” If the New Testament wishes to express the place of punishment, it uses the word Gehenna, which literally refers to the Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem. It was the valley that in the ancient days those who worshiped the pagan god Molech, the fire god, had burned their children as an offering to this false deity. It ultimately became the official rubbish dump, the public incinerator of Jerusalem. It smoldered continuously and, in it, loathsome species of worm bred and multiplied. That terrible valley, a kind of valley of destruction, stood as the popular idea of hell.
These two words are quite different.
When The Apostles’ Creed declares that Jesus ” . . . descended into hell . . . ,” it is trying to make a very clear statement that Jesus literally died. In fact, it is a double statement, for already it says He was “crucified, dead, and buried.” If that were not enough, it goes on to say He descended into the place of the departed spirits, not to the place of final eternal punishment. The Early Church wanted to make very clear Jesus really died. There were those who, for various reasons, held to what is known as the “swoon theory.” These held that Jesus didn’t really die. He fainted, but the coolness of the tomb revived Him. Part of His work on the cross was to die. That’s the main reason for this double statement of both His death and His descension into hell.
Some Bible scholars speculate He may have, in that situation, actually preached to the departed spirits, proclaiming to those who lived in the Old Testament anticipation of the coming Messiah what He had accomplished on the cross. There are some who even speculate Jesus went to the place of departed spirits to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles who had never heard. I’m not prepared to make a definitive comment on those speculative theories. What I am prepared to say is Jesus literally died. That’s the primary meaning.
There are three bottom-line truths with which I must begin this message and also conclude it.
Bottom-line truth number one: We can’t do it ourselves.
Every other religious system is a “do-it-yourself” approach to God or the gods, except for historic Christianity. Historic Christianity says that you and I simply can’t do it ourselves.
Bottom-line truth number two: God has done it for us!
That’s what the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is all about. It is God’s action on our behalf.
Bottom-line truth number three: The cross of Jesus Christ is the central event of all history.
That’s why, at the top of most churches, you see a cross. That’s why, in most sanctuaries of worship, there is a cross. That’s why so many people wear the cross as jewelry. The cross is the central symbol of what the Christian faith is all about.
Those of us living in the United States have little idea of how controversial the cross of Jesus Christ can be. We used to be a so-called Christian nation. The cross is a common symbol in our society. However, that’s not the case in some places in this world.
I remember being in Cairo, Egypt, some years ago. One of my friends had completed her medical training. She was endeavoring to pass her medical board exams. On two occasions, she had failed her exams. I happened to know she was one of the brightest students in her class. She knew that, too. She knew she had answered the questions correctly. What was the problem? The problem was she, as a follower of Jesus living as a minority member in a Muslim society, wore the cross in necklace form as a statement of witness. She was warned by her Muslim professors and examiners that it would be better for her not to wear the cross to her examination. She was convinced that would be a compromise move on her part. In fact, that’s what they wanted. They were trying to press the issue. Knowing she would pay a price, she wore the cross. Finally, on the third or fourth time, still wearing the cross, her examiners relented. It was obvious she had mastered the material. They needed her medical skills to contribute to her society. They saw they could not intimidate her. She held high the cross of Jesus, even when it cost her something. The cross is the central event of human history.
I. The Old Testament anticipates the cross of Jesus Christ.
You see sacrificial offerings going back to the earliest of times. Abel brought sacrificial offerings to God. You see people of Israel surviving their 400 years of bondage in Egypt. The Exodus began with the institution of the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb, anticipatory of the Lamb of God that would take away the sin of the world. Moses was quite specific in the instruction given for tabernacle and temple worship. Blood sacrifices were part of that observance, anticipating the ultimate sacrifice of God’s own Son.
It’s important to note that, although God tested the faith of Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice Isaac, God ultimately provided a substitute lamb. God was saying an absolute “No” to child sacrifice, as carried out by the pagans. It was quite clear that, without the shedding of blood, there was no remission for sin.
The Old Testament also had prophesies of the coming Messiah. This “suffering servant” is mentioned in prophetic utterance on numerous occasions. How much the prophets fully understood what they were being lead to write under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, you and I do not know. But can you ask for more graphic prophesy of Christ’s work on the cross than those who predicted the words of Isaiah hundreds of years earlier.
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth, like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. (
We could browse through the Old Testament quoting many messianic prophesies such as this.
II. Christ’s death on the cross is central to everything taught in the New Testament.
We’ve already mentioned how familiar this symbol, the cross, is to us in Western culture. Few of us think twice when we see it and are somewhat shocked at the price my doctor friend paid professionally for her insistence on wearing the cross as jewelry. But what many in western culture find offensive is the very necessity of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
The year before last on Easter Sunday, I played part of the video tape we just saw a few minutes ago of the crucifixion scene. Some who come to church only on Christmas and Easter expressed great upset that I would inject such negative graphic material into what should be a beautiful celebrative occasion. They didn’t seem to catch the connect between the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and His resurrection.
In fact, one parent who brought young people to church on that Easter Sunday threatened to sue me and the church, accusing us of having exposed his children to X-rated, pornographic violence and perhaps even marring the very psyches of these young people.
The fact is that the death of Jesus Christ on the cross underlines the “uniqueness” of Christianity. God has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He has provided a way for us as sinners to be forgiven and to have a vital relationship with Him.
Hymn writer Isaac Watts wrote:
Not all the blood of beasts
On Jewish altars slain
Could give the guilty conscience peace,
Or wash away the stain.
But Christ the heavenly Lamb
Takes all our sins away;
A sacrifice of nobler name
And richer blood than they.
Let’s look briefly at some of the references made in the New Testament to the death of Jesus Christ and the necessity of the cross. What I’d like to do is mention some words that are mentioned in the New Testament. These words underline the importance of what happened on the cross. Let me emphasize that, even as we look at these words that carry a heavy load of theological freight and as we quote some verses from the New Testament, there still is a mystery that surrounds what God did for us on the cross. At one level, it is as clear as can be that the cross of Jesus Christ was essential if you and I are ever to be restored to right relationship with the Father. At the same time, if any one of us thinks that we fully understand any one of these words or theological concepts, we run the risk of trivializing that which ultimately is known in all of its fullness only unto God.
Fortunately, the God of all Creation has chosen to at least alert us, through the use of these words and images, to some of the truths of His divine economy and what is involved in providing salvation for His people. Perhaps by now you’ve seen some of these themes in your covenant group study of the book by Paul E. Little titled Know What You Believe.
The New Testament builds on what the Old Testament says about the atonement for sin.
Atonement means a bringing together of those who are estranged. In the Old Testament, the word atonement means literally “to cover.” The animal sacrifices provided a “covering” for sin until the death of Jesus Christ would forever destroy sin’s power. The author of Hebrews captures both the Old and New Testament understanding when he writes, “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (
Some have said that the basic meaning of atonement is “at-one-ment” – that bringing together of those who are estranged.
John the Baptist truly understood this about Jesus.
Another word used throughout the New Testament is the word reconciliation.
It’s a very important New Testament theme. Time after time, we are shown to be enemies with God, hostile parties to the Divine. Sin separates us from the Holy God.
Jesus is described in these terms in
God is in the business of reconciliation. God loves you and me so much, He yearns for us to be reunited in spirit, to function in full open relationship with each other.
Jesus elaborated on this in that magnificent parable He told. We call it the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s really the Parable of the Loving Father, isn’t it? The father had his heart broken by the son who disgraced him publicly by demanding his part of the inheritance, which he promptly took, left home, went to a far country and spent it on wine, women and song. Did the father write him off? No. The father loved him. The father scanned the horizon hoping his son would come back. When he did, he didn’t give him a lecture. He shocked the rebel by refusing to listen to his speeches of how he would make good. Instead, he threw a party in his honor. And this same father yearned for reconciliation with his other son, the self-righteous young fellow who had done things the right way. Now he was jealous of his prodigal brother. He had some lessons to learn about what it is to be in fellowship with the Father, even while basically doing the right things.
Another theme that makes its way through the New Testament is a bit more difficult to capture. We would call it the theme of appeasement or propitiation.
These words are used to describe the atoning death of Jesus. The word propitiation is used only in the King James Version of the Bible, but it carries the same meaning as the word appeasement. Both of these words have within them the concept of the removal of wrath by the offering of a gift.
There is a personal kind of dynamic at work here. For example, a young man might appease his girlfriend, whom he has offended in some way, by sending her a dozen roses.
The most classic case of this, which has appeared in the newspapers, is that of Kobe Bryant trying to appease his wife by his public apologies, contrite spirit and his gift of a $4 million diamond ring.
Jesus lay down His life for us, fully satisfying God’s holy and just standards. Jesus appeased God’s wrath against evil.
The Apostle Paul puts it in these words in
Another New Testament word is the word divine ransom.
Bluntly stated, “‘For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many'” (
The imagery here is that of buying back or restoring.
In the days of slavery, a ransom was the most commonly used term to refer to the price paid for redeeming a slave, the price of releasing the slave from bondage.
In our day, we are more familiar with it in terms of kidnapping. Every time there’s a prominent kidnapping, we wait to read about the “ransom note.” It’s the price for freedom. One of the prices a person who is extremely wealthy pays for their wealth is the fear that one of their family members will be abducted or have their life threatened by someone who is determined to extort a ransom in exchange for the safe return.
God does not first reconcile us, then ransom and then finally love us. Rather, He loves us and, because He loves us, He opens the way for reconciliation, appeasement, and ransom. In
Another phrase used throughout the New Testament is the word substitute. This may be one of the clearest explanations of the death of Jesus Christ.
Paul writes to the Church at Corinth, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (
This is what is meant by the “substitutionary atonement” In fact, that is the bottom line of our text for today,
For example, just imagine that a man was sentenced to pay a large fine and serve a prison sentence for something he did wrong. If the judge was his friend and loved that person so much that he took off his robes and served the sentence for the man, he would be his substitute. The man would go free, uncondemned. The weight of his sentence would be on his friend, the judge.
That’s what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is our substitute. He’s taken our place.
This concept was driven home to me quite graphically when I was a youngster. I had done something wrong. In those days, most parents believed in corporal punishment, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” When I did wrong as a child, I would receive a spanking, the consequence of my doing something wrong. My father would explain to me that this was not something he wanted to do; he was not doing it in anger. Instead, he was doing it for my good. Then he would have me pull my trousers down, bend over his knee, and then he would carefully apply his belt three or four times to the appropriate place on my anatomy, which he referred to as my “padded stern.” I know that some of you recoil at the very thought of such discipline. I myself would find an adult temper tantrum, which strikes out in abusive behavior, abhorrent. There was something good, clean and final about what my dad did.
He used to say in that preparatory conversation, “Johnny, you don’t realize this hurts me more to do than it’s going to hurt you.” On one occasion, I snapped back at him, declaring that I didn’t believe that. And then he said, “I won’t do to you what my father did to me. He used to take me out to the wood shed and give me the same kind of speech I’m giving you, and I challenged him just like you just challenged me. But in that case, my father pulled his own trousers down, handed me the switch, insisting that I give him the spanking I deserved. That was the most painful thing I ever had to do, to have my dad take my place for what I did wrong.”
Jesus took your place. He took my place. He was our substitute.
Are you beginning to capture a bit of what’s involved, what happened on the cross? I would rather treat these concepts and phrases as hints we’re given as to what was going on on the cross. Some have tried to build whole theologies around one of these words. Theologians refer to these as various “theories of the atonement,” such as the ransom theory, the substitutionary atonement theory.
I’m convinced that out of the richness of these metaphors, of these images, we begin to get a sense of what God was doing on our behalf on the cross.
The Bible says no one has really seen the face of God. His glory is beyond comprehension. The light of His countenance is so dazzling. At the same time, it may be possible for us to twist that concept around and say that we actually have seen the face of God, the crucified God, the anguished face of Jesus the Christ. Maybe the glory of God’s face is in His very anguish on our behalf-that grotesque distortion of bearing the weight, the brokenness, the pain of my sins, your sins, the sins of all humanity.
III. There have been various endeavors to minimize Christ’s death.
Our covenant study book by Paul Little mentions four prominent theories and objections people throughout history have used to discredit, discount Christ’s death on the cross.
One is referred to as the moral influence or example theory.
This theory states that humankind needs only to repent and reform to be reconciled to God. Advocates of this view believe that the death of Jesus was merely a powerful example. It was that, but it was much more than that. We are guilty before a Holy God. Just try to follow the example of Jesus. As much as we are to do that, it is insufficient to reconcile us with the Father.
Another is the governmental theory.
This holds that Christ’s death was necessary to preserve God’s divine law and authority with some exhibition of the high estimate that God places on His law and the terrible guilt that comes from violating it. Granted, the cross does show the destructive nature of sin and makes it clear that we dare not take sin lightly. But according to that theory, we, the guilty ones, are the ones who should suffer for violating God’s law, not the Innocent One, Jesus the Christ. We are told in
Then there’s the accident of history theory.
Somehow, what happened was unexpected and unforeseen. Things got out of control with the betrayal of Judas. No way. Jesus knew what He came to do. He specifically told it to His disciples in advance. Read about it in
The fourth attempt to minimize the death of Jesus Christ is the notion that He was just another martyr.
Throughout history, there have been many martyrs. In a way, He was a martyr, not just any other martyr. The buildup of the Old Testament prophesies and sacrifices and the very specific centrality of the cross of Jesus Christ in the New Testament – with all of the images, words, and insights at which we’ve already looked, and others that could be added to that – point to the fact that Jesus was not just another martyr. He was God taking our place on the cross. God in His righteousness and judgment knew sin had its penalty. In His mercy, grace and love, He took the initiative on our behalf.
Now this brings us right back to the bottom-line truths with which we started.
The bottom-line truth one: We can’t do it ourselves.
Every other religious system is a “do-it-yourself” proposition, except for historic Christianity that says we can’t do it ourselves.
Bottom-line truth two: God has done it for us.
So we come back to our text,
Bottom-line truth three: The cross of Jesus Christ is the central event of all history – the vehicle of God’s grace!
God has acted on your and my behalf. He offers His grace, freely given. It’s His gift to us. All we need to do is repent and put our trust in Him alone for salvation. Have you done it? If so, celebrate. If you haven’t, open your life to Him today. See, that’s what’s so amazing about grace. It’s God’s unmerited favor, acceptance, reconciliation, offered freely. Christ’s atoning work on the cross!
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