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TEXT: Mark 10:33-34
SUBJECT: The Apostles' Creed #5: Suffered, Crucified, Dead, Descended
Today, with God's blessing, we'll move along in our study of The Apostles' Creed. The Creed was not written by the Apostles or our Lord and it was not inspired by the Holy Spirit. This means it is not infallible and that it remains open to review.
Saying this, however, does not mean that it's like any other Confession of Faith. Because it isn't. Other Creeds confess the faith of one church or denomination, but this one speaks for the Church Universal. We all believe it. And not since 1973, but from nearly the beginning of the Church. A Creed quite a bit like this one was accepted as far back as the Second Century; the form we have it in today goes back more than 1500 years.
The Apostles' Creed has stood the test of time. Because it is true-maybe not in every word-but overall, it is the best summary ever published of those things most surely believed among us.
In English, the Creed is 109 words long. Of the 109 words, no less than 70 of them are about the Lord Jesus Christ. It begins by telling us who He is. He is,
Jesus Christ, [God's] only son, our Lord.
Every word is packed with theology. Libraries could be filled with books on this line alone.
After telling us who He is, the Creed explains how he came into the world. He didn't just appear as angels do; He didn't come down in flying saucer as Martians might. His conception and birth were not quite the same as other people. He was,
Conceived by the Holy Ghost [and] born of the Virgin Mary.
This means our Lord's Father is God. Not in a figurative sense, but quite literally-in the same way that John is my son, Tommy is Henry's son or Christian is Marc's son. Just as these boys share in the father's nature, so the Lord shares in His Father's nature. In other words, the man Jesus Christ is also God. Not like God, but God. Not possessed by God, anointed by God, aware of God, called by God, but He is God Himself!
The same in essence, equal in power and glory.
If God is our Lord's true Father, then Mary is no less His true mother. Mary is not Divine, but human, as human as you and I. This means our Lord is not only Divine, but He's also human. Not half-human, but human on the inside and on the outside. He has a human body and human soul; He has human thoughts and human feelings. He is
Very man of very man.
Who the Lord is and how He got here are key doctrines. But the Creed sees them-not in isolation-but as going somewhere? Where? To the cross.
The manger is preliminary to the cross. Not just in time-of course, the Lord had to be born before He could die! But also in importance. The Creed knows this, and puts His suffering and death right where they belong-in the middle of our theology and in the center of our lives.
Here the Creed is thoroughly Biblical. It not only gets the Bible doctrine right, but also its priority. Paul loved the Lord Jesus Christ-loved everything about Him. But he didn't glory in His virgin birth or in His great miracles or in His fine teaching.
God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.
What does the Creed say about the Passion of the Christ? Three things.
HE SUFFERED UNDER PONTIUS PILATE, WAS CRUCIFIED
[He] suffered under Pontius Pilate.
For long years I wondered why Pontius Pilate was singled out for special criticism. Of the many who raised their hands against Him, Pilate seems the least guilty. Yet he's the one who gets it. The Creed says nothing about the traitor Judas Iscariot, or the judges of Israel, or the Centurion or the soldiers or the mob or others under whom He suffered. Only poor, pitiful Pontius Pilate.
Why? I think there are two reasons. First of all, he was a well-known man. The Gentiles never heard of Caiaphas or Annas or Judas. But Pontius Pilate, they knew. They could look him up in the almanac. He was the governor of Judea from 26-36 A.D. He was appointed by Tiberias Caesar, and then fired for his brutality and incompetence. In disgrace, he went to Rome and killed himself.
By naming Pontius Pilate, the Church is saying that the suffering of our Lord really happened. It's not a matter of faith; it's a matter of fact.
When the Pagans had dead gods coming back to life, they were always fuzzy as to just when and where it all happened. But the Apostles' Creed is sharp on detail. [He] suffered under Pontius Pilate.
A second reason they named Pilate is because the Creed was published in the Roman Empire. Had it said "He suffered under Annas", the people would have blamed the Jews. But Pilate wasn't a Jew; he was a Gentile, and a Roman no less. This means the Empire was guilty-that the Roman leaders and the people who supported them tortured and crucified God!
Remember, the Roman Empire was the whole world to their way of thinking. This means every mouth is stopped and all the world becomes guilty before God.
Who killed the Lord Jesus Christ? We all did.
The Lord's suffering was physical. Nails hurt His hands and feet as much as they would yours. A crown of thorns felt the same to his skull as it would to mine. Pilate was not a lenient judge, but after he whipped the Lord, even he felt sorry for Him. Pilate was hoping the people would feel the same pity, when he cried,
Behold the Man!
But, of course, they didn't. Beating a man half to death wasn't good enough for them. He had to suffer far, far more.
I cannot review a movie I didn't see, but this is one of my objections to the Mel Gibson film. I have read that it is the bloodiest movie ever made--the goriest and most graphic. The Lord's suffering was all that-and more.
But no movie can depict His deeper suffering, and without doing that, it seems to me, it has to mislead the ones who watch it. The nails were not the worst of our Lord's suffering, but rather, the least of them. He suffered mentally in a way few men can even guess at. Spiritually, He suffered as no one outside of hell can appreciate.
Why did the Lord suffer and die? There are many views of the Atonement-from the Moral Influence view that says He died to set us an example to the Reformed view that teaches He died in the place of the Elect, and thereby secured their salvation. There is also the Classic View that says He died to defeat Satan. And the Arminian view that says He died to make the salvation of all possible on the condition they repent and believe. One of my heroes-C.S. Lewis-held a different view, which, though I've read it a dozen times, I still can't get what he's saying.
The Creed does not come down on any one side. To the Early Church, it was enough to affirm that our Lord died for
The forgiveness of sins.
I hold to the Reformed view without apology because I think it is taught in the Bible. But I do not equate that view with the Gospel. I think that anyone who believes in Christ for the pardon of his sins is pardoned.
When C.S. Lewis was a boy, he attended a Protestant Church in Ireland. He was not a believer at the time and couldn't make heads or tails of the Gospel. All he got out of the sermons was this:
God wanted to punish men for having deserted and joined the Great Rebel, but Christ volunteered to be punished instead, and so God let us off.
That is a childish view of the Gospel-no doubt about it. But it also happens to be true. We have sinned, God will punish sin, but Christ took our punishment upon Himself.
DEAD AND BURIED
The Creed doesn't stop with the Lord's suffering and crucifixion. It also says He was,
Dead and buried.
This seems pretty obvious. If I said, Bob went to the gas chamber, I probably wouldn't have to say he died and was buried, for they are included in going to the gas chamber, more or less.
Why does the Creed say He was dead and buried? The words do three things for us. They underline the fullness of His suffering. They emphasize the fullness of His obedience-He became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Some martyrs didn't quite make it. They took a bold stand for God and they suffered many agonies of body and soul, but then the gave in. We cannot blame them, for we're all weak. But we can praise the Lord Jesus for remaining faithful unto death.
But, most importantly, they lay the groundwork for the Resurrection. A man who rises from the dead is somewhat different than a man who recovers from a near-death experience. One is an object of God's special mercy, the other is God!
HE DESCENDED INTO HELL
Now comes the line that I wish were not in the Creed. Not that it is false, but it is easy to misunderstand. After suffering under Pontius Pilate, being crucified, dying, and being buried, the Creed says our Lord,
Descended into hell.
Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and some Anglicans take the words quite literally. They believe the Lord's suffering did not end with the tomb, but went even deeper. When He died-they say-His body was put in the sepulcher and His spirit went into the place of punishment.
Why did His spirit go down there? Some say He went there to preach the Gospel to the lost in hell and give them one more chance to repent. Others say He went there to complete His suffering. Others say He went there to show His victory over death, hell, and the grave.
The only passage named in support of the doctrine are I Peter 3:18-20.
For Christ also suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive by the Spirit, by Whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is eight souls, were saved through water.
Before exploring the verses, let me pose a couple of questions: Should a major doctrine be based on one passage only? And, what if the passage is very confusing and outstanding men have strongly disagreed on its meaning? Of this passage, Martin Luther said,
A wonderful text is this, and an obscure passage, perhaps, than any other in the New Testament.
To build a major doctrine on a text notoriously hard to interpret seems like folly to me-and likely to land you in heresy.
Having said this, let me take a crack at the verses. If you don't like my take on it, do better yourself. Verse 18 presents two contrasts: the just one (Christ) suffers in the place of the unjust ones (us). The Lord was put to death in the flesh-that is, He died. But He didn't stay dead: He was raised by the Spirit. Notice, it doesn't say His spirit stayed alive (which is a Bible doctrine), but that it was made alive. Or, is that what it says? I agree with the translators of the NKJV who don't say He was made alive in the spirit, but by the Spirit. What Spirit made Him alive? The Holy Spirit.
Verse 19 starts with this Spirit-not the Lord's human spirit (or soul), but the Holy Spirit. In the Holy Spirit, our Lord preached to the spirits in prison. Who are these spirits? They are dead men now, who lived in the days of Noah.
When did the Lord preach to them? If He preached to them in His human spirit, it must have been in the three days and three nights it was separated from His body. But if it's the Holy Spirit Peter has in mind, then we can say that, by the Holy Spirit, our Lord preached to the men of Noah's generation when they were alive on the earth.
He brings up these sinners-instead of others-because he's going to make a comparison between baptism and the flood. Just as the flood separated saints from sinners, so baptism (symbolically) separates disciples of Christ from others.
Is there any history to back this up? Yes there is. When the Lord died, He cried, It is finished. The it refers to His suffering, but if He went to hell afterwards, His suffering wasn't finished. Moreover, He told the thief that he would join Him that day in paradise-not hades. Finally, I Peter 1:11 says the Spirit of Christ preached Christ in the Old Testament.
If He descended into hell doesn't mean He descended into hell, what does it mean?
It means He suffered the pains of hell on the cross. What is hell? It is the curse of God; it is the absence of God; it is darkness; it is shame; it is the devil.
The Bible ascribes every one of these things to the cross. I won't go on and on, but here's a sample:
The curse of God: Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.
The absence of God: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
Darkness. Darkness covered the land from the sixth hour to the ninth hour.
Shame. They stripped Him of His clothing and mocked Him.
The devil. This is your hour and the power of darkness.
Would a crucifixion be hell for us? No, it wouldn't be. It would be a long, humiliating, and painful death, but not hell. Why not? Because we wouldn't be bearing the sin of the world. But Christ did. Thus, on the cross, He carried the damnation of us all.
In response to His dark and glorious suffering, we ought to love Christ with all our hearts. Look what He did for us!
We ought to renounce all self-righteousness. If His death isn't enough to save us from our sin and misery, how can we think that our prayers or offerings or good works will do it?
We ought to witness for Christ and support missions, for He did not die for us only, but for all nations, all languages, all tribes. The cross is big enough to save the world. And it will. Though the Gospel, which we're called to preach to everyone.
We ought to remember what matters most: not Calvinism or the Charismatic Gifts, not Church Government or the Mode of Baptism, not stopping abortion or winning the war in Iraq, but Christ crucified.
We'll remember that only as we meditate on the heart of the Creed-and the Word of God. Our Lord,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell.
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