The Apostles' Creed is perhaps the most recited confession of orthodox Christianity. It declares belief in the triune God, the one true Church, the forgiveness of sins, and the hope of eternal life. But have you ever wondered why it mentions the name of the pagan ruler who authorized the crucifixion of Jesus?
We'll find out next. This week on Redoing Your Mind, Dr. R.C. Sproul is explaining the foundational doctrines of the Christian faith, using the Apostles' Creed as a framework. Today we come to that point where we declare that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, and one of the aspects of the creed that R.C.
will be talking about is why this pagan ruler is mentioned by name. As we continue our overview of the Apostles' Creed, we face something of a dilemma here. In order to cover all of the articles of the creed in this brief time together, I have to skate very lightly and very quickly over what really is the heart of the creed, the dimension that deals with the work of Christ. What we have left with respect to Christology is suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified dead and buried, He descended into hell, the third day He rose again, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. All of that has to do with the work of Christ, and I'm going to try, if possible, to just give a brief overview, touching the more problematic aspects of that, since we do have other lessons available that go into detail into each of those aspects of the work of Christ that are more familiar, like the crucifixion, the resurrection, the ascension, and so on. Well, let's look then at that segment of the creed that begins with the statement, suffered under Pontius Pilate.
Now, I said I was going to look at the dimensions of the creed that provoke questions, and for me, this is one of the most provocative. I asked myself, first of all, why does the creed jump so abruptly from a confession of the birth of Jesus immediately to the passion of Christ, as if nothing happened between birth and death? Well, of course we know that the New Testament and the early church and the creeds of the church place great importance on the life of Jesus. It's not simply the death of Jesus that redeems us, but His life of perfect obedience is a prerequisite for the sacrifice and offering that He makes as an atonement for us on the cross.
But we have to say here that we do have this abrupt move from birth to suffering. But the confession of Christ's suffering is not a negative thing in the early church. It's part of the joy of the gospel.
Do you ever wonder, for example, why we call Good Friday, Good Friday? I mean, it's the blackest day in the history of the world from one perspective, and yet from another perspective, it is the day of redemption. And so there is a sense in which the creed is indicating to us something joyous, that there is a link from birth to death, that Jesus was in fact born to die, not as a tragic hero, not as one who dies in disillusionment, not as one who is like a Buddhist resigned to the inevitability of suffering and the tragic, but His death is His destiny for us, for our redemption. But the more puzzling question to me is not why the creed should mention the suffering of Jesus, because we know it's through suffering, through the Via Dolorosa, that our redemption is secure. But why under Pontius Pilate?
Well, there are different answers that have been given to that historically, and there is an element of speculation. We don't know for sure why that receives such a special place in the creed. One perennial answer again is that by saying that He suffered under Pontius Pilate immediately puts the suffering and the passion of Jesus into the arena of world history. And some maintain that the reason why the allusion to a well-known secular person was to stop the mouths of the Gnostics and the Docetists who had an attempt to spiritualize the significance of Jesus and divorce the work of Christ from the arena of world history. And since Pilate is not simply a Jewish figure, but he is a known secular figure according to the annals of world history, this indicates the historical foundation to the work of Jesus. Now that is particularly important in today's theological atmosphere, because some historians have said that we are living in the strongest period of neo-Gnosticism since the second century. All kinds of attempts have been made in modern theology to dehistoricize the gospel, to rip it out of the context of history and put it in some existential realm or supra-temporal realm, what Rudolf Bultmann calls a theology of timelessness.
So that's one of the speculative answers that is given. Other things are important about Pilate. He occupies what the Jews would call the role of publica persona, and that's easily translated, a public person. He is not functioning as a private individual, but Pilate's judgment is a judgment that expresses the legal opinion of the highest secular court in the world. And what is the judgment of Pilate?
On the one hand he says, echa homa, behold the man. He calls attention to Jesus and repeatedly he declares the innocence of Jesus. And so from this public seat of judgment, Jesus is declared to be innocent. That is another element that to the Jew was perhaps even more important and to the early church. The Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah and of the suffering servant, of the sin-bearer of the people, is one who will suffer for the people, but he will suffer outside the camp.
The biblical prophecies are that the Messiah will be delivered to the Gentiles for judgment. Now you remember how this is all enacted in the figures and the images of the Day of Atonement in the Old Testament where the lamb is killed? But you don't only have the lamb where the sins of the people are placed upon the lamb and the lamb is sacrificed, but there's another animal, the scapegoat. And the priest goes through an elaborate ritual where he lays his hands on the scapegoat, symbolizing the transfer of the sins of the people to the back of the goat. Then what happens to the goat?
He's driven into the wilderness. Again, remember when Israel encamped in their wilderness experience, they camped by tribes, and in the very center of that tribal encampment was what? The tabernacle.
And in the innermost center part of the tabernacle, the innermost place, was the Holy of Holies and the Alders of Sacrifices. So that on the Day of Atonement, the lamb that was sacrificed was sacrificed in the middle of the camp. But the sins of the nation were put on the back of the scapegoat, and he's driven outside the camp into the outer darkness, into the realm of what is unclean.
Jesus is killed not by the Jews. He is taken by the Jews to the Romans. The Romans try to give him back. Herod's in town.
They say, hey, he's a Galilean. He's under Herod's authority. And so Pilate shuffles him back to Herod. Herod shuffles him back to Pilate, and the final judgment comes by Gentiles. And even the means of death, the means of execution, is not a Jewish means. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified.
How significant is that? The Jewish method of capital punishment was through stoning, not through crucifixion. Paul makes enormous mileage out of the fact of the means of Jesus' death in the book of Galatians, calling attention to the fact that under the Old Testament legislation, there were laws of purification and laws of defilement. And the formula in the Old Testament for the sanctions of the law that were positive and negative, where the positive benefits for those who kept the law, were called what? Blessings.
And the negative punishment for breaking the law was called what? Curses. And to be cursed meant to be cut off from the presence of God, driven outside where the benefits of God's presence are concentrated. Think of the Hebrew benediction, may the Lord bless you and keep you.
It's a parallel. May the Lord make His face to shine upon you, right? Lift up the light of His countenance upon you and give you peace.
They have a parallelism. Bless, make His face to shine, lift up the light of His countenance. What's the Jew saying there? The Jew understood blessedness in the concrete terms of the images of being close in near proximity to the radiant, effulgent glory of the face of God.
The closer you are to God, the greater the blessedness. The further away removed, the greater the curse. And so to be shut out into outer darkness, outside of the covenant community, outside of the household of faith, was to be cursed. Now, Deuteronomy tells us, cursed is anyone who hangs upon the tree. And Paul makes a big deal out of the fact that the mode of Jesus' death was by crucifixion, which is under the ban, under the curse of the Old Testament system.
It's a Gentile form of death. And so for Jesus to take all of the curse that is the penalty for disobeying the law of the Old Testament, He must not only offer His blood like the Paschal lamb, but He also must fulfill the role of the scapegoat and be delivered to the Gentiles, die outside the camp, not only outside of Israel at the hands of Gentiles. But you would think if Jesus is going to fulfill the role of the lamb without blemish, where would you expect Him to die? In the temple. But not only does He not die in the temple, He doesn't even die in Jerusalem.
He goes outside the city walls of Jerusalem, abandoned to the Gentiles to receive the curse. Seven hundred points to this pilot, was crucified, dead, and buried. Here we have to understand the significance of the burial in light of the Jewish messianic prophecies of the progress of the servant of the Lord, which generally speaking, it's not an absolute, moves in a pattern from humiliation to exaltation. But the New Testament makes a big deal out of the mode of Christ's burial.
The Old Testament prophet Isaiah said in Isaiah 53, he foreshadows and predicts the suffering of the servant. And it said he will make his grave with the rich because of his innocence. Now what was the normal punishment for an executed criminal under the Roman system? Thrown into the garbage heap.
Thrown into the garbage heap. They were not given a regular burial service, but rather they were taken outside of Jerusalem to the garbage dump that was always on fire, because as every day, you know, garbage was thrown in there, and that was called Gehenna, it became the principal image of hell for the New Testament writers. And yet God had promised that He would not allow His Holy One to see corruption. And the point of the New Testament is the transition from humiliation to exaltation doesn't start with the resurrection, it starts before the resurrection. It starts with the burial. The burial is the first sign of the vindication of God that He has accepted this sacrifice, that it is finished on the cross.
It's finished on the cross. And so that the moment He is brought down from the cross, He begins to enter into His glory. Now that creates problems with the next phrase, He descended into hell. Now, we know that some churches delete that statement from the creed, and others use an asterisk that means that He was in a state of death for three days.
And we know, of course, that that was not in the old Roman symbol, and presumably was a later addition even to the Apostles' Creed. Now, some churches, the Roman Catholic Church, for example, believe that in between the time that Jesus died and He rose again from the dead, He experienced a local, what we call, dissensus ad infernos, a local descent into hell. But you ask, okay, what was the Spirit of Jesus doing in that interim between burial and resurrection? Well, the theory is He went to hell.
Now, there are different theories of that. Some say that He went to hell to finish paying the ultimate penalty for death, and others argue, know that He went there triumphantly on a redemptive mission to rescue captives who were there, the Old Testament saints or whoever, you know, based on the passage in Peter that's very cryptic. In the Reformed tradition, Calvin, for example, argued that Christ's descent into hell was real, that Jesus really went to hell, but where did He go to hell? On the cross, so that if Calvin were going to recite the Creed, he would say He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, descended into hell, dead, buried, rose again from the dead. Because it's on the cross that Christ experiences the curse. It is on the cross that Christ is forsaken by the Father, and the full measure of divine wrath is poured out upon Him on the cross. Now, the question of what Jesus was doing in between is a question I'm going to just leave you hanging about. I think there is a response and a correct understanding of that Petrine passage, and I personally don't believe that Jesus went to Hades or anywhere like that, and I think that touching His Spirit, Jesus was where? Exactly what He told the thief on the cross.
Today, he should be with me in paradise. But granted, the whole question is complex and difficult to solve, and so I'm going to move on. Then, of course, the Creed moves quickly from the descent into hell to the resurrection. But why is the resurrection so important to Christianity?
Well, let me ask it another way. Is it conceivable, remotely conceivable, that we could have a meaningful Christian faith apart from resurrection? Again, in our day, there are theologians who are arguing that the resurrection of His historical event is not necessary for a meaningful Christian faith. Paul, of course, had a different view. The whole fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians argues in what we would call ad hominem fashion. He's faced with a problem in the Corinthian community that some people were denying the reality of resurrection. And so what Paul does masterfully in 1 Corinthians 15 is two things. In the first place, he gives us a detailed argument for the resurrection based upon the fulfillment of Scripture, the eyewitness testimony of the apostles, of the 500 people, and of his own eyewitness experience.
But then he argues ad hominem, and he said, all right, let's take your argument for a minute. Suppose there is no resurrection of the dead. If A, what follows, what's the result of that? Let's take your thinking to its logical conclusion. If Christ is dead and there is no resurrection from the dead, then what are the implications of that?
And he spells them out. The implications are what? You're still in your sins. Your faith is in vain. Your faith is useless.
Your preaching is futile. You become false witnesses of God because you're telling everybody that God did, in fact, raise Him from the dead. Not only that, but there are other personal shattering implications that those who have fallen asleep in the Lord have perished.
Your loved ones that have died, you have no hope for them. And then he gets, you know, he's mad. He says, why do I fight with a wild beast at Ephesus? You know, why am I sacrificed every day?
You think I'm doing this for my health? And he protests about it and then said, but now is Christ raised from the dead and doesn't leave us with just the negative implications of a non-resurrection. But again, the point is that for the Apostle Paul, take away the resurrection, you take away Christianity. He said, if Christ is not raised, we are of all people the most to be pitied. And we might as well embrace the creed of the Epicurean, eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
But the positive significance is that the greatest enemy of man, that enemy that hangs over every human being like the sword of Damocles every day of our lives, the ultimacy of our own personal death, which threatens everything that we do, everything that we say, everything that we learn with ultimate chaos, with what the existentialist calls the abyss of non-being, of annihilation. That enemy is conquered by the resurrection because the resurrection is not seen in the New Testament as an isolated event simply for the benefit of Jesus. But the New Testament declares that His resurrection is as the first fruits of those who have died so that we are promised that we will participate in the resurrection of Jesus. And not only that, the resurrection is God's sign and indication that He has received the atonement of Christ, and He is raised, as the Bible says, for our justification, not simply to vindicate His Son, which God does. I mean, all the world shouts guilty, Jesus is killed, and for three days God is silent, and on the third day He screams, and He vindicates His Son by raising Him from the grave.
But not only is Christ vindicated, but those who are Christ's are vindicated, are justified. In other words, without resurrection in the New Testament, there's no justification, there's no redemption. Okay, He rose again from the dead, and He didn't just rise again from the dead and then continue His earthly ministry for another 50 years. He ascended into heaven.
I'm going to try to say this in about 30 seconds. I just want to pique your interest by this, that in the New Testament, one of the most important moments of redemptive history happens at the moment of the ascension of Jesus. There's a certain sense, and I come right to the rim of heresy here, when I say that in terms of the biblical expectation of the kingdom of God, that the resurrection of Christ, which is so crucial, so important, so supremely significant, is in a certain sense the penultimate event of New Testament history, not the ultimate event. There's something beyond resurrection, that's ascension, where the resurrected one now moves out of humiliation completely to exaltation, to be enthroned as the King of Kings. He was going to the seat of authority, so that immediately in the creed, the ascension is followed by what we call the session, the seating at the right hand of God, where He sits there in the position of power and authority and kingship, which we've already talked about, but not only that, but where else does He go? Into the holy of holies, into the inner chamber of heaven Himself, to be our high priest. In Old Testament Israel, the Jews one day a year had a human high priest who himself had to go through all kinds of radical cleansing rites in order to go in and offer a sacrifice that was good for 365 days for the people, for their sins, and they prayed that God would accept it.
I have a perfect high priest who pleads my case with the Father in the inner chambers of the courts of heaven every minute, every day. No wonder these guys rejoiced. They said, Hey, we're going to miss you, and we're going to hate to be without you, but if that's where you're going, go ahead. And He said, I'm going to prepare a place for you. And so the creed then ties up the Christological confession by saying, but even that isn't the end of the story. But He will come from that same place, from whence He shall come. There's a final chapter to be written. The last page of redemptive history is still not yet fulfilled.
He will come from there to judge the quick and the dead so that Christ is our King, He is our Priest, and He is the Judge of the world. All that in this very brief outline form. The Apostles' Creed contains so much truth in very few words.
It's been universally accepted as a statement of orthodoxy in the church for centuries. That's why we're taking time to explain it this week here on Renewing Your Mind. We are sharing portions of Dr. R.C. 's role series, Basic Training. There are six lessons in this series, and we will be happy to send you the DVD for your gift of any amount today.
You can give your gift securely online when you visit renewingyourmind.org, or you can call us to make your request at 800-435-4343. You know, hearing R.C. explain the fundamental doctrines of Christianity is helpful no matter where you are in your Christian walk. This series is formatted in six 23-minute messages.
If you teach a church membership class, a Sunday school class, or lead a small group, this would be a great series to share. So ask for it by name. Again, it's titled Basic Training by Dr. R.C. Sproul. Our number again is 800-435-4343, and our online address is renewingyourmind.org. Perhaps you have a family member or friend who is a new Christian who wants to learn some of the basic doctrines that Dr. Sproul teaches in this series. Let me encourage you to share this program with them. You can send them a link both from our website or from the free Ligonier app. Tomorrow Dr. Sproul continues this series with a lesson on the Holy Spirit. What is the Spirit's ministry, and how does He work in our lives? I hope you'll join us Thursday for Renewing Your Mind. .
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