Table Talk: Do you ever think about Jesus coming back? What circumstances prompt you to think about that? What effect do those thoughts have on you (if any)?
[“Table Talk” is an opening question or topic for discussion at the beginning of our time together. The intent is to help group members (around tables, with four to six at each table) build connections with each other, as well as to guide thinking in a direction related to the passage.]
Our “Table Talk” time covered three different directions of thinking about Jesus returning. One person thought immediately of persecution, “things will be a mess” with natural disasters and a variety of other forms of distress, especially for believers, but including all the earth. Another person commented that thinking about the second coming leads thoughts to our mortality. We speculated that it was easier to think of the Lord returning “at any moment” when we were younger (and reading books like The Late Great Planet Earth in the 1970’s). As we age we may still believe in an imminent return, but it seems more likely that we may go to be with Him before He comes to be with us. A third comment focused on the promise that the gospel will be preached to the whole world before Jesus returns. That vision of all “unreached peoples” hearing the Good News was encouraging. One person summarized the second coming as “wonderful, scary, and tragic.”
Not surprisingly, no one mentioned judgment as the first effect of Jesus’ return. Yet, judgment is the only reason for or effect mentioned in the Creed about the Lord coming back. The Creed omits all the things we usually emphasize in discussions about “last things” – the timing, signs to look for, the sequence of events, who will experience the Tribulation, what the thousand-year reign will be like (if there is one). The Creed says nothing about charts and timelines. A reasonable question would be, “Why?” Why doesn’t the Creed even hint about the things that we would most like to know? As one person pointed out, the Creed is not intended to be exhaustive. The Creed provides a very brief summary of the larger story God tells throughout Scripture. If we want to know more, as the person continued, “It’s in the Book.” Additionally, the Creed was intended to clarify essential teaching and unify the church. Most of the issues that divide us today (details about the second coming, mode of baptism, how to organize a church, etc., etc.) are absent from the Creed. If we can agree that “He will come again to judge the living and the dead,” then we can discuss details and maybe agree to disagree.
The Creed mentions only judgment, and we considered why that single topic was included. For one thing, it affects everyone, the living and the dead (quite an inclusive list). Another comment was that because judgment brings justice, judgment is a good thing (to be considered more a little later in our discussion).
Development of the Creeds
Comparing the Apostles’ Creed (ca. AD200) with the Nicene Creed (ca. 325-381) reveals small but significant additions:
|He will come again||He shall come again,|
|to judge the living and the dead.||to judge the quick and the dead;|
|whose kingdom shall have no end.|
We considered why those additions were made in the Nicene Creed. Our usual assumption is that the earlier wording of the Apostles’ Creed included potential “loopholes” that could be exploited. False teachers (either by design or in ignorance) could twist the words of the Creed in destructive directions. Like the modernists of the early twentieth century, opponents of orthodoxy in the ancient church could affirm the Creed by twisting the meaning of words. J. Gresham Machen’s words apply equally well to those early “modernists:”
It makes very little difference how much or how little of the creeds of the Church the Modernist preacher affirms, or how much or how little of the Biblical teaching from which the creeds are derived. He might affirm every jot and tittle of the Westminster Confession, for example, and yet be separated by a great gulf from the Reformed Faith. It is not that part is denied and the rest affirmed; but all is denied, because all is affirmed merely as useful or symbolic and not as true.
Even the fact that Jesus would come again in judgment might be wrongly affirmed if Jesus was only considered an angel or other representative of God rather than a divine Judge. Adding a phrase “in glory” emphasized that Jesus shares divine glory with God the Father. He is the object of worship (as we saw related to the ascension last week). In addition, His return will be a very public, visible even, characterized by the glory that is His. Just as the Nicene Creed expanded the section on “Jesus Christ, God’s only Son,” here the Nicene fathers added evidence of Christ’s deity at every opportunity.
A person in our group suggested that the phrase “whose kingdom will never end” emphasized Jesus’ eternal reign, and the judgment was not the end of the story. We will see more of the hope provided by that part of the never-ending story in a few weeks.
Reactions to Judgment
While we may acknowledge judgment as a part of God’s larger story, not everyone (not even every Christian) accepts that idea. Our group discussed how people simply don’t want to think about judgment. If they do think about it, the idea of judgment usually is based on comparison: “At least I don’t do that. I’m certainly not as bad as that person. I may not be perfect, but at least I do my best.” Discussion about judgment can soon turn defensive with a conversation-ending Bible quote: “Judge not, lest you be judged.”
We considered how this aversion to judgment comes from our culture’s highest values: independence, political correctness, social justice, equality, and above all, tolerance. My suggestion is that today tolerance means, “You must accept whatever I do or say, and I will accept whatever you do or say – as long as it agrees with me.” Obviously in such an environment, any hint of judgment violates every one of those values and is not tolerated, either from others or from God.
There are several reasons we shy away from the New Testament’s teachings on judgment. To begin with, we’re uncomfortable with the idea of God as a judge. The language of judgment makes modern people wince. Dennis Prager, a Jewish thinker, notes that in our culture, “judging evil is widely considered worse than doing evil.”
Often if the topic of judgment comes up in a conversation, someone (maybe a Christian, maybe not) will point to Jesus as the ideal of love who repudiated judgment:
16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:16-17, emphasis added)
(I sometimes use PowerPoint® slides in our discussions. Before I could move to the next slide one of our group suggested continuing on to verse 18!)
18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil” (John3:18-19).
Clearly, Jesus affirmed God’s judgment and His own participation along with the Father in that judgment. Those who might deny Jesus’ role in judgment come perilously close to the second-century heresy of Marcion, who “taught that the god of the Old Testament was not the true God but rather that the true and higher God had been revealed only with Jesus Christ.” The creeds (both the Apostles’ and Nicene) include the judgment by Jesus, probably to correct the false teaching. The Creed is important today for the same reason.
Two perspectives on Judgment
We looked at two passages of Scripture about judgment, both from the book of Psalms. Last week we read the beginning of Psalm 110 about the Lord “seated at the right hand of the LORD.” This week we continued in Psalm 110 to examine the judgment exercised from that honored position. In addition, we studied Psalm 98, which expresses an attitude toward judgment that contrasts with Psalm 110. Both passages are included on the handout.
Comparing and contrasting these two Psalms shows that both declare God’s judgment (Psalm 110:6; Psalm 98:9). However, the “tone” or “mood” of the two passages could hardly be more different. Comments about Psalm 110 referred to death and defeat, words like “broken” and “crushed”, a negative, maybe even a harsh description. Psalm 110 certainly sounds like one of the opening comments in our group, about the last days being “a real mess.” On the other hand, Psalm 98 begins with celebration, and exhortations to joy and singing continue for the first eight verses. In fact, the ultimate reason for the rejoicing is given at the end: “for He is coming to judge the earth, He will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity” (v. 9).
One observation made by a participant in the group was that Psalm 110 is mostly about what God will do, using repeated future tenses (“will shatter … will judge … will fill with corpses … will crush”). Psalm 98 describes a variety of things God has done in a past tense (“has done wonderful things … has made known salvation … has remembered”). Perhaps Psalm 110 is a warning of what will be happening in judgment, while Psalm 98 is a reassurance of God’s faithfulness and love which go along with His judgment.
Response to Judgment
How are we to reconcile these two perspectives on God’s certain judgment to be accomplished by Jesus at His return?
“The gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many” (Matthew 7:13). … The Bible teaches this is not a truth to minimize or apologize for. Rather, it is actually somehow good news. The Psalmist sings with joy (“make a joyful noise”) that God is Judge. God’s coming again to judge the living and the dead is somehow good news! Psalm 98 is upbeat about it. How is that in any way possible?
“He is coming again to judge” is good news on both a theological and a personal dimension.
Theological Good News
Good News for those sinned against
The image of God in every person, no matter how corrupted, includes hints and shadows of God’s character of holiness and righteousness and justice. “There is a desire for justice and equity deep within you.”
Good News because God judges in love
“God’s love is never set against his judgment. Both work together. God is not fickle; he does not have ‘good’ or ‘bad’ days, nor do his love and justice depend on his mood. God is completely consistent in his character.”
Good News because God’s judgment saves
“To save Israel from slavery in the exodus, he judges Egypt. To save his people from captivity, he judges the nations. Salvation for some means judgment for others.”
“As Karl Barth famously noted, Jesus is ‘the Judge who was judged for us.’ This might cause us to be more startled than comforted. To that end, the Heidelberg Catechism asks, ‘What comfort is there that Christ shall come to judge?’ Answer: ‘That the one who comes to judge is the very same person who previously came to be judged for my sake and has removed all curse from me.’”
Several weeks ago we considered the implications of the incarnation expressed in the letter to the Hebrews: “For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted” (Hebrews 2:18). “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:18). “He was made like us in all things” (Hebrews 2:17). He understands judgment from our perspective as well as the perspective of His Holy Father.
Good News because it affirms God’s righteous character
“If God were NOT angry at injustice and deception and did NOT make a final end of violence, that God would not be worthy of our worship.” It is important to note that this comment comes from a Croatian who has ample reason to desire God’s just judgment.
Good News Personally
Good News that shapes our relationships
“If you really believe in the judgment of God, then you won’t feel the need to make yourself the judge. This is a tremendously liberating idea. If God is the Judge, then you don’t need to be…. Believing that God is Judge frees you up to give over your anger, to surrender your desire for revenge.” Liberating indeed. We need to remind ourselves and each other of the reality of judgment and to continually align our emotions and desires with that truth.
Good News that shapes our worship
We usually focus on the cross when we celebrate Communion, which is appropriate. We need to remember that Communion looks forward as well as back. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). Our worship, including Communion, should have a sense of anticipation, a sense of longing to worship Him at His return. Jesus Himself suggested His own anticipation: “But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:29).
Good News that shapes our fellowship
A familiar verse calls us to intensified community among believers: “and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Notice the incentive for this fellowship: “the day drawing near.” Jesus described that day: “For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24). As we anticipate the Lord returning and the accompanying circumstances (“things will be a mess”), perhaps it is our growing fellowship and mutual stimulation and encouragement that God will use to preserve us among the elect.
Good News that shapes our self-awareness
A key aspect of judgment is the omniscience of the Judge. God already knows all about us, and that recognition on our part can be liberating. “And it is because we are open to the gaze of God that we can afford to be honest with ourselves. We can admit to ourselves the truth that is already known to the only one who truly counts.” That recognition and celebration of Judge who is all-knowing and full of grace is key to our growth and spiritual formation. “God meets us and works in our lives where we are, not where we pretend to be or where we say we are.” God as the perfect judge frees us to admit where we are and invite Him to form us. God’s judgment means He already knows all there is to know about us – more than we know about ourselves. When we recognize our need for the Judge who was judged for us, then He can work in us to draw us into fellowship with Him.
O sing to the Lord a new song,
For He has done wonderful things,
His right hand and His holy arm have gained the victory for Him.
The Lord has made known His salvation;
He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations.
 J. Gresham Machen, What is Faith? (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991, orig. 1925), p. 34; Quoted by John Piper, “Communing with God in the Things for Which We Contend” in Contending For Our All (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2006), 134. The audio and text of the sermon are available at
http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/j-gresham-machens-response-to-modernism , accessed March 13, 2017.
 Raymond F. Cannata & Joshua D. Reitano, Rooted: the Apostles’ Creed (Murfreesboro, Tennessee: Doulos Resources, 2013), Kindle Edition location 2110; quoting from Dennis Prager, “The Sin of Forgiveness,” The Wall Street Journal (December 15, 1997).
 http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/marcion.html , accessed March 13, 2017.
 Raymond F. Cannata & Joshua D. Reitano, Rooted: the Apostles’ Creed (Murfreesboro, Tennessee: Doulos Resources, 2013), Kindle Edition location 2127.
 Raymond F. Cannata & Joshua D. Reitano, Rooted: the Apostles’ Creed (Murfreesboro, Tennessee: Doulos Resources, 2013), Kindle Edition location 2147.
 Raymond F. Cannata & Joshua D. Reitano, Rooted: the Apostles’ Creed (Murfreesboro, Tennessee: Doulos Resources, 2013), Kindle Edition location 2162.
  Raymond F. Cannata & Joshua D. Reitano, Rooted: the Apostles’ Creed (Murfreesboro, Tennessee: Doulos Resources, 2013), Kindle Edition location 2206.
 Raymond F. Cannata & Joshua D. Reitano, Rooted: the Apostles’ Creed (Murfreesboro, Tennessee: Doulos Resources, 2013), Kindle Edition location 2211.
 Raymond F. Cannata & Joshua D. Reitano, Rooted: the Apostles’ Creed (Murfreesboro, Tennessee: Doulos Resources, 2013), Kindle Edition location 2252; quoting Miroslav Volf, Croation philosopher.
 Raymond F. Cannata & Joshua D. Reitano, Rooted: the Apostles’ Creed (Murfreesboro, Tennessee: Doulos Resources, 2013), Kindle Edition location 2231.
 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 205.