This is the final statement about Jesus, after the statement about God, and the statements about Jesus, that precede it.
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the 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. [See Calvin]
The third day He arose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
Remember we are using The Apostles’ Creed as an outline to address the major doctrines, or teachings, of the Christian church. And, while we as Baptists do not use a creed in our corporate gatherings, that does not mean that we do not believe in the statements contained in the Creed.
But, back to today’s topic — the return of Christ and the judgment of everything. So far in our look at The Creed we have had an event to hang on to each statement about Jesus:
- For “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary” we have the angel’s announcement to Mary and Mary’s response; and, of course, we have the entire nativity story and the celebration of Christmas;
- For “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried” and including the phrase “He descended into hell” (which requires a whole discussion all to itself, but is nonetheless a part of the Passion of the Christ), we have Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday.
- For “The third day He arose again from the dead” we have the resurrection of Christ and Easter;
- And for “He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty” we have the Ascension of Christ and the Sunday that celebrates that event.
All of those affirmations are statements of belief rooted in a past reality. Jesus was born. Jesus did suffer and die. Jesus did rise from the dead. Jesus did ascend back to the Father in heaven.
Each event was witnessed by real people and each were profoundly affected by the event they witnessed. From shepherds and wisemen, to disciples and followers, to those who saw Jesus alive, each event was verified by numerous eyewitnesses who continued throughout their lifetimes to speak of what, in the words of John,
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us.” 1 John 1:1-3a
But when we come to today’s affirmation — “from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead” — we have left the events of the past, and are now affirming one final event that will take place in some future time, unknown to any except God the Father.
I’ve Got Good News and Bad News
Okay, you’ve probably all heard this one, but it makes a point about this business of the second-coming of Christ and the judgment of everything.
One of the Pope’s assistants rushed into him and said, “Holy Father, I’ve got good news and bad news.”
The Pope said, “Okay, what’s the good news?”
The assistant replied, “The good news is that Jesus has returned and wants to talk to you on the phone.”
“Great,” the Pope responded. “But what’s the bad news?”
“The bad news is, he’s calling from Salt Lake City.”
Okay, that’s an old and silly joke, but it kind of captures our ambivalence about the return of Christ and the judgment of the world. We’re not sure if we want to hear it or not. Frankly, we’re not sure we even believe it anymore, although there it sits, in the middle of The Apostles’ Creed. Of course, even if we abandon the Creed, there are longer versions affirming that we as Baptists believe that Jesus will return to the earth bodily and visibly, and that Christ will judge the earth as the final act in God’s great drama of creation and redemption.
Our scripture passage today is almost a word-for-word match to the words of The Creed, probably because early Christians took much of what they used to compose The Creed from the words of Scripture itself.
So, the good news is this is a belief of the Christian church from the first century and the original apostles. The bad news is that after 2,000 years this statement has lost some of its practical punch.
Why This Statement in The Creed?
The Apostles’ Creed was a concise statement of the commonly held beliefs of all Christians. It started in very simple form, in a version known as the Roman Creed. Over the centuries as controversies arose, The Creed was amplified, tweaked, and clarified to address specific heresies, or false teachings.
One of those was a Gnostic teaching that God was unconcerned with mankind’s actions. The idea of Christ returning to judge the earth was a counterpoint to the teachings of the Gnostics that all matter is evil, that what we do in our physical bodies doesn’t matter, and that it is only the spiritual that is significant.
Other heresies denied the physical resurrection of Jesus, and his transformed body. Others said that Jesus had already returned, and that now believers were left to their own devices. So, this statement in The Creed, because it comes directly from scripture, pushes back at many of those false teachings.
But, rather than being just a reply, or a response, this statement in The Creed is a positive affirmation of a long-held belief known as The Blessed Hope — the confidence that Jesus would return to the earth, vindicate his followers, and judge the earth.
Here’s the importance of the return of Christ, and his judgment of the earth — without this final chapter, without Christ’s return and judgment, God’s salvation history is incomplete. The story of God must have an ending, and this is the beginning of that ending.
Let me say it this way — from the creation of the earth and mankind’s place on it, all the way through the events of the Old Testament, down to the coming of Jesus as the Christ, God has been on a mission to redeem his creation. Theologians call this the “missio Dei” — the mission of God.
The story of God and His people is not complete unless and until God sets everything right. Everything cannot be set right until Jesus returns as he rightfully deserves, as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And, everything cannot be set right until Jesus gives his opinion, his judgment, about the world, its systems, and its people. In other words, the setting right of everything awaits the return of Jesus and his judgment.
So, its not enough to say, “Well, Jesus gave us a wonderful example to live by, and that’s all that we need.” Nor is it enough to say, “We need to work for God’s kingdom to come on this earth as it is in heaven.” That is true, and we do need to do just that, but the only reason we need to do so is because one day, God’s will is absolutely going to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
What’s the Return of Jesus About?
First, Jesus will return. The apostles believed that he would, because Jesus himself told them that he would. In Matthew 25, Jesus says,
31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” — Matthew 25:31-33 NIV
So, by Jesus’ own words, he states that he, the Son of Man, is coming again in glory, and to judge the nations. Several times in the gospels Jesus speaks of his return, and so this idea that Jesus is coming back is not on the disciples made up, or the church invented to keep people in line. Jesus himself spoke of his visible, bodily return.
But, we are skeptical. Two thousand years have passed, and still no Jesus. Maybe we don’t need to believe that Jesus really will return because it seems like a fading possibility.
Okay, let me ask you this: Do you believe that Jesus came in the form of a tiny baby? Most of us here today, if not 100% of us, would say, “Yes, I believe that Jesus came as a tiny baby.” But what’s harder to believe — that God can limit himself, come down from heaven, enter the womb of an unmarried woman through some mystery of conception that we cannot understand, be born as a baby by totally natural means, and then grow up to save the world from its sin;
Or, that God comes with lightning, angels, and glory to the earth?
Frankly, I think it’s easier to believe God will come with lightning, angels and glory, than that God was born a baby.
Okay, but that’s not the only reason. As I said earlier, if Jesus doesn’t return, the story is incomplete. Jesus came first as the Suffering Servant found in the prophet Isaiah; he returns the second time as the recognized Messiah, God’s Anointed One. The first time many, most as a matter of fact, missed who he was. The second time no one will miss who Jesus is.
Let’s look at my favorite passage about Jesus one more time: Philippians 2:5-11.
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature[a]
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature[b]
of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
That’s what happens at the second coming of Jesus: everybody and everything — every knee and every tongue — in heaven, in earth, and under the earth, confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
So, the first time most don’t get it; the second time everyone gets it.
I’m Good on Jesus Return, But What About This Business of Judgment?
We’ll all be happy for Jesus to come back someday, I’m sure. But the thing we really have trouble with is this business of God’s judgment, or more accurately, Jesus’ judgment of everything. But let’s take a close look.
Our big problem with the “day of judgment” is we have a picture of wrath and destruction in our heads. And to be sure there is that element of purging with fire that we’ll talk about in a moment. But here’s the picture of judgment that we need to focus on.
Psalm 98:8-9 says —
8 Let the rivers clap their hands,
Let the mountains sing together for joy; 9 let them sing before the LORD,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples with equity.
The psalmist calls on nature, God’s creation, to rejoice, to clap and sing, because God comes to judge the earth. God’s judgment is the final act of God’s salvation.
A quick personal story: I traveled to Mexico several times on business before tourists had to show American passports. To cross the US-Mexico border a tourist only had to show some type of US identification to go over and back. Of course, all that has changed now, but even in the late 1990s and early in this decade, business travelers to Mexico had to have a business visa.
This visa was a separate green booklet that had to be stamped on your entry into Mexico, and then stamped on your exit from Mexico. Well, the first time I crossed over into Mexico after receiving my visa, I had it appropriately stamped upon entry. We went in, met with our customers, and then made our way back across the border. The rep I was with forgot to have us stop and get our exit stamp, which neither of us thought was a big deal.
But, six months later when I tried to re-enter Mexico, the immigration official pointed out that I never “closed” my last visit. I did not have the stamp that said, “Salida” with the appropriate date of my exit. He refused to let me enter the country again. And, he pointed out that the fine for failure to obtain an exit stamp was close to $800 US dollars, because several months had passed.
I was stunned. First, I didn’t have $800 US dollars on me, so that was out of the question. Second, my customer was expecting me, so I had to make my appointment. So, I asked very politely, “Is there some other way we can solve this problem?”
The immigration official looked at me, and smiled. “Well, of course, if you could pay some small fee, say $25, we could stamp your visa.” Of course, this small fee was paid in cash, and I received no receipt for it, but the official took his “Salida” stamp from the drawer and properly stamped by visa. Then, he took his “Entrada” stamp, and stamped it again with the current date to give me legal entry into Mexico.
My point in telling that story is this — we have to have an exit, an ending to God’s story. And that ending is the return of Christ, and his judgment of the earth.
But, judgment isn’t in itself destructive or vengeful. Judgment is God’s opinion. So, when Jesus returns, he returns to give his opinion of all the world’s systems, nations, and people. Matthew calls it “separating the sheep from the goats.”
Other gospel writers use similar analogies as in “separating the wheat from the weeds.” The point is, Jesus is going to give us his opinion of what is useful to the Kingdom of God, what is faithful to the Kingdom of God, and what will endure within the full-arrived Kingdom of God.
Things like “sheep” and “wheat” represent those things and people that are useful to, faithful to, compatible with, and obedient to the Kingdom of God. Remember in Jesus’ early ministry, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Repent and believe the good news.” Well, the good news is judgment made plain. The good news is Jesus opinion of the world.
Judgment is both good and bad. The good is some are sheep, some are wheat, some are received with a “well-done good and faithful servant.” The bad news is some people and things are judged to be “goats, weeds, and bad servants.”
And the criteria for Jesus’ judgment is Jesus himself. Jesus is the incarnation of God, and how people, nations, and systems received Jesus is judgment in itself.
In John 3:16-17, Jesus said,
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,[a]
that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” — John 3:16-18 NIV
Okay, but here’s the disclaimer: Jesus is the righteous judge. In other words, he doesn’t judge like we would. Our job is not to figure out how Jesus is going to judge, our job is to live in light of Jesus love for the world. To live as he lived. To see the world as he saw it, as sheep without a shepherd. To love God and love others.
Jesus’ judgment is not just about going to heaven when we die, it’s about God’s opinion of everything here on earth, including us. Whether we are among the living or the dead when Jesus returns does not matter. What does matter is whether we are among the faithful.