Sunday, June 18, 2017

Apostles' Creed - Jesus (part 1)

Line for line and word for word, the Apostles’ Creed talks more about Jesus than anything else.  Depending on how you break it down, God the Father gets two lines in the creed and the Holy Spirit gets one, but Jesus gets 10.  From the creed we learn about the life of Jesus, the work of Jesus and at least one title given to him, our Lord.  Because there is so much here, we are going to take two weeks to explore what the creed tells us about Jesus and break it down by first looking at the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and then next week we will explore the titles given to Him as Savior and Lord.  What the first line clearly states is that we believe Jesus is God’s only son.

Claiming Jesus to be the Son of God sets us apart from much of the world who believes in Jesus but would just call him a good teacher, prophet or religious reformer.  Most of the world believes there was a man named Jesus who lived at the beginning of the first century, but we differ on what we believe about this man.  Most of the world sees Jesus as a man who said and did some great things, but as Christians, we believe that Jesus was truly the only son of God.

All that we know about Jesus comes from one source – the Bible.  There are a few non biblical sources from the time of Jesus that mention a man named Jesus who was a religious leader that was crucified, but all the details we have about Jesus come from the Bible.  While some people have a hard time believing the Bible can be accurate and trusted, there are actually many good reasons to believe the Bible.

The 4 gospels and all of the New Testament writings have been dated to the last half of the first century, from about 50-95 AD, which means they were all written by eyewitnesses or contemporaries of Jesus.  This is not history written hundreds of years later.  Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels all share some of the same source material which means that there was some kind of document about the life of Jesus that was written down even before the gospels were compiled.  This source material was gathered in the years following Jesus’ death and resurrection.

All of the New Testament writings also came under great scrutiny during the first two centuries and the material that was seen as the most accurate and sound historically and theologically was included while others writings that didn’t line up with the eyewitness testimony of Jesus or didn’t affirm the view of God set out for us by Jesus, was set off to the side.  Great care was given to make sure the person and message of Jesus was shared accurately and passed on with as much integrity as possible.  What we have in the Bible is trustworthy and true.  We might not be able to call it a book of history the way we think of history, because people didn’t write that way, but it is no less accurate, historical and trustworthy.

So what the creed tells us about Jesus is material we gather from the gospels and the early letters to the churches and it outlines for us the life of Jesus as God’s only son.  He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, which is why he is the son of God and not the son of Joseph.  He was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried and then the third day he rose from the dead.  All of this we learn from the New Testament.

So let’s start with the birth of Jesus.  The creed tells us he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.  This information comes to us from Luke 1 where we are told that an angel of the Lord came to Mary and said, Greetings, you who are highly favored!  The Lord is with you.  The angel went on to say to Mary, You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.  He will be called the Son of the Most High God.  When Mary asked how this could be since she was a virgin, the angel said, The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the most high will overshadow you.  So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.

So Jesus had an earthly mother but a heavenly father.  Jesus was both human and divine.  God in the flesh.  We call this the incarnation which truly sets Jesus apart from the rest of creation.  Jesus was fully human.  He was a man walking around Israel during the early part of the first century, but we also believe that Jesus was fully God.  One of the most amazing aspects of the incarnation is to think that God loved us enough to come and be one of us.  God choose to come in human form, limiting himself in so many ways so he could understand the fullness of our lives.  The Bible says that Jesus was tempted in every way like we are but because he was God, he was without sin.  God came to be one of us in order to reveal himself to us and to show us his love and our value.

This idea of a virgin birth is a struggle for many people to accept because we think it just isn’t possible and yet we are learning more and more amazing things about God’s creation that should open our mind to this possibility not close it.  A few years ago Jay Stauffer, a friend of neighbor of Greg and Gail Spotts, spoke at Young at Heart about his work with fish in Malawi.  He told us about a species of fish that can change their gender if needed in order to fertilize eggs.  If there weren’t enough males in the area, some of the females will become males so they could fertilize the eggs.  I was amazed when I heard this and immediately thought that if God could do something like this then God could somehow bring a child into this world through a young virgin girl.

In God’s creation there is also something known as parthenogenesis which is the creation of life from an unfertilized egg.  It is seen in some fish, birds and reptiles.  If that is already possible in part of our creation – is it really a stretch for us to think that God could do this in a human being?  While this certainly does not prove that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, it does help open our minds to the idea that if God can do this in our world then he could do it a young girl from Nazareth 2,000 years ago.

What the story of the virgin birth is really trying to communicate is that Jesus was unique in all of human history because he was the only son of God.  Jesus had a unique connection with God and as God’s son Jesus had the ability to do things that no other person could do.  Jesus could heal people and restore life.  Jesus had power over nature so could perform all kinds of miracles and as God, Jesus could forgive sin.  None of these things are possible if Jesus is just a man, but the incarnation tells us Jesus was not just a man but the very son of God.  He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.

The next part of Jesus’ life the creed focuses on is his suffering and death.  Stating that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate puts him into a specific time and place and culture.  Jesus lived in what we know today as Israel during the first century and his teaching and ministry came under scrutiny by the religious leaders.  The reforms Jesus talked about challenged the order of the day to the point where those in power worked through the political system to have Jesus killed.  Jesus was betrayed by the religious leaders and handed over to Pontius Pilate who was the Roman authority who could pronounce a death sentence for Jesus.

It is the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke which detail for us the suffering Jesus endured at the end of his life and with great unity and clarity they tell us about the arrest, trial, crucifixion and death of Jesus.  If there is one historical truth that the world would all agree to it would be that there was a man named Jesus who lived about 30AD and was crucified in Jerusalem.  The official Roman historian of the day, Flavius Josephus, affirms this to be true.

What sets us apart from the rest of the world is not that we believe Jesus lived and died but that we believe three days later he rose from the dead.  Next week we will talk more about what we believe the death and resurrection of Jesus means for us, but today let’s just say that we believe there was a resurrection which proclaimed the victory of life over death and the power of love over all things.  What sets us apart from other major religious views is that we believe that Jesus rose from the grave.

So what assurance do we have that this is true?  What confidence do we have that what the Bible says about the resurrection is true?  In a classic book on the resurrection called The Resurrection Factor, Josh McDowell helps us find confidence in the truth of the resurrection by exploring all the theories that people have come up with to debunk the resurrection of Jesus.  These theories might all be called fake news today and they all center on explaining how the tomb of Jesus could be empty.  Everyone agrees Jesus died, but then the tomb was found empty.  If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, than how do we account for the empty tomb?

First there is what is known as the Swoon Theory.  Here the idea is that Jesus didn’t really die but just passed out on the cross and then was laid in a cool tomb where he later revived and then walked away.  The problem with this is that the Romans were experts at crucifixion and they would not have taken anyone off the cross without making sure they were dead.  Not only was this their job, but if they didn’t do it right – they would be killed.  So no one got off the cross alive.

Another suggestion is that the disciple went to the wrong tomb.  Because they were so overcome with grief, the disciples simply went to the wrong tomb when they went looking for the body of Jesus to prepare for its final burial.  Of course the problem is that others who wanted to show that Jesus had died would have gone to the right tomb and produced his body, which they never did.

Another idea that very early was put forth was that the disciples stole Jesus’ body.  First, we are told that the tomb was guarded by Roman soldiers so the possibility of the disciples being able to steal the body was slim to none, but the biggest problem with this is that if the disciples stole the body of Jesus then everything they did after that was for a lie.  Many of the disciples died because they refused to back down from this claim.  At some point someone would have given up the lie and told the truth and produced the body.

This leads to a fourth theory which says the religious leaders or Roman officials moved Jesus’ body so the disciples wouldn’t steal it.  Of course if this was true then once the story of Jesus’ resurrection started to take off, the religious leaders or Roman officials could have produced the body and silenced everyone.  That never happened because they never moved the body.  The tomb was empty because on the third day Jesus rose from the grave.

One of the most compelling reasons to believe in the resurrection actually comes from the disciples whose faith and trust in the risen Jesus was so strong that it forever changed their lives and through them the world.  The disciples saw Jesus alive many times after the resurrection and their testimony has brought hope and healing to the world.  As people put their faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection, they experience not only forgiveness of sin but the power to live a new life.  Faith in the resurrection brings hope that our world can be changed and that it will someday be set right.  The new life of the disciples and the followers of Jesus in every generation have brought a hope and power that has changed our world.

When we choose to believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection we open ourselves up to receive the power of God which then enables us to live with God’s purpose and passion and power.  What we believe about Jesus shapes our lives because if Jesus is the son of God who has power over death then our faith and trust in him opens the door for us experience that power and live differently.

Believing in the resurrection is a choice, but it is a choice we make based on solid facts and conclusions and a choice that affirms the type of God we believe in.  Jesus affirms that we believe in God the father, almighty, creator of heavens and earth and a God who loves us so much that he came to dwell among us.  What we believe about Jesus set us apart in the world and shapes not just our views about God but the choices we make and the way we live.  Affirming this part of the creed means we now need to follow the example of Christ and make love and sacrifice the guiding principles of our lives.  These are not just words we affirm but reveal to us a way of living that we commit to following.

Next Steps
The Apostles’ Creed – Jesus (part 1)

1.  The Apostles’ Creed tells us that Jesus was
Conceived by the Holy Spirit
Born of the Virgin Mary
Suffered under Pontius Pilate
Was crucified, dead and buried
On the third day he rose from the dead
Which of these things is the most difficult for you to believe and why?

2. The incarnation tells us that Jesus was fully God and fully human.  God came to dwell among us and be one of us.
What does this tell you about the nature and character of God and his love for us?
In what way can you walk in the shoes of someone else and show them love, forgiveness and support?

3.  What part of Jesus’ life gives you confidence and assurance that Jesus was God’s only son?  (His teaching, miracles, care for people, love for enemies…)

4.  In order to say that the resurrection of Jesus was “fake news”, people came up with the following theories:
Jesus didn’t die but just passed out on the cross and then revived in the cool tomb
The disciples went to the wrong tomb
The disciples stole Jesus’ body
The religious leaders or Roman officials moved Jesus’ body
How can you prove these theories to be wrong using the witness of the Bible, common sense and reason?

5. Identify the specific ways your life is different because you choose to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.