Last week we defined the exaltation of Christ. I said that Christ’s exaltation, which began at his resurrection, continued through his ascension, and will culminate in his return, is the biblical witness to Christ’s dominion over all things. God’s right hand is the image of his power and authority, and at his right hand is where Christ is enthroned.
I also said that Christ is praying for us, and we are assured that the Father hears the prayers of the Son. So let’s look at that a little deeper.
Intercession. noun. Prayers by the Son and the Spirit directed to the Father on behalf of God’s people.
Paul makes it clear that the Son is definitely at the right hand of the Father and is praying for us. He says in Romans 8:34, “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”
And the author of Hebrews wrote, “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (7:25).
But what is interceding? Is it a special kind of prayer? Can only Jesus do it? Maybe the Spirit?
Intercession happens all the time in forms other than prayer. Another word for intercession is mediation, one we may be more familiar with. This is what some lawyers do. Trial lawyers mediate on behalf of a defendant or plaintiff by speaking for them in front of a jury and judge. Lawyers do this because they know the right things to say in the right contexts. They know the law better than us plebs. You and I may not know when we’re about to step in it, and our lawyer is there to do the walking for us. In a court system, you want a lawyer.
We intercede for people in prayer, however, all the time. Whenever you pray for someone else, you’re interceding on their behalf. If you’re praying for someone’s salvation, returned health for the sick, or safety in someone’s travels, you’re interceding. And more generally, when you pray for the end of abortion or success in missionary endeavors, you’re interceding. Much of prayer should be intercession.
But back to Jesus and the Spirit. How exactly is Jesus interceding, or mediating, for us? We get a glimpse of that in 1 John 2:1. John wrote, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
Sin is the problem. Jesus’s blood is the solution. His once-for-all substitutionary sacrifice covers over our sin. And yet we still sin, and we will until this life is over or he returns. But, like a lawyer before a judge, Jesus Christ is advocating for us before the only righteous Judge. He is, in effect, saying, “Look at my blood, not their sin. You sent me in their place, and I went willfully. Look at me, not them.”
Will not the judge of all the earth do what is just?
Jesus is not re-sacrificed when he intercedes, mediates, or advocates for us. On the cross, he said, “It is finished.” But Jesus continually prays for us and advocates for us before the Father. And the Spirit continually applies that redemption to people in real time. That’s how we know our salvation is assured in this moment.
But what about the Spirit? How is his intercession like or different from Christ’s? Paul wrote in Romans 8:25-26, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
So while it might be said to be a difference without a distinction, the Spirit prays for us in Spiritual ways.
Jesus intercedes for us so that we are saved. Our Father is not so wishy-washy that Jesus is trying to convince him we’re still “worth saving”. Jesus intercedes for us because, like John wrote, we still sin. But, that means his blood is still the saving kind.
In Romans 8, Paul wrote that we have “the first-fruits of the Spirit”. Even more so than the rest of the world, the church groans for new creation because we’ve tasted it in the Spirit. We wait for adoption and redemption; this is our great hope. And the suffering around us doesn’t compare to the glory ahead of us.
Throughout Romans 8, Paul has outlined the work of the Spirit. In verse 2, it’s the Spirit’s law that freed us from sin and death. In verse 4, it’s the Spirit who makes us walk in righteousness. In verse 6, the mind set on the Spirit gives life and peace. In verse 11, the Spirit will give life to our mortal bodies. In verse 13, the Spirit helps us kill the sin that remains. In verse 14, the Spirit leads the sons of God. In verse 15, the Spirit assures us of our adoption. In verse 16, the Spirit aligns our spirit with his to assure us of our adoption. In verse 23, the Spirit guarantees redemption.
And if that’s not enough, Paul then wrote in verses 26-27 that the Spirit helps us in our weaknesses. Every moment, our physical decay picks up speed. We only get weaker. Our bodies groan for redemption. Every moment, we become more and more aware of the decaying nature of not only our bodies but the world. And we become more aware of sin's deep-seated effects.
Up until this point in the passage, Paul has been summarizing what the Spirit will do. But today, the Spirit prays for us. In this moment, the Spirit intercedes for our heartbroken groaning about the things that are not right in us and in the world because of rebellion against God.
We may not always know the will of God for each and every moment, but that’s okay. The Spirit does, and that’s enough, because the Spirit prays for us “according to the will of God.” If the Spirit prays in God’s will and we seek to walk in the Spirit, we will be in God’s will. Don’t get frustrated when you don’t have a point-by-point outline for your future. The Spirit will guide you.
The church need not be a worrisome, frustrated, panicky people. Jesus is interceding on our behalf, and his blood has already paid the debt. The Spirit guides us in our daily lives and guarantees our future in God’s kingdom. What more could be done?
The church rightly focuses on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. His name is the only name under heaven by which men are saved. His sacrificial substitution on our behalf absorbed the wrath of the Father so that we might be justified. But we also don’t want to relegate Christ’s work to the resurrection. Christ is the eternal Son of God. He existed before the incarnation, and of course, he is now seated at the right hand of the Father.
We say that Jesus Christ “preexisted” eternally. Of course that’s just in reference to the incarnation, hence the “pre-.” In his preexistent state, Christ was often present as the angel of the Lord throughout the Old Testament. Also, Paul says that Christ was the rock that Moses struck to give the Israelites water.
But what about now? What’s Christ doing now, as he sits in authority at the right hand of the Father? That leads us to today’s definition.
Exaltation of Christ. noun. Beginning with his resurrection, Christ received all authority and power. After a period of 40 days, Christ ascended to the Father in his glorified body and to exercise dominion. His exaltation will result in his return to earth to finalize the defeat of sin and death.
We may not often wonder what Christ is doing right now, but Scripture does not keep it from us. He is our greatest intercessor. He prays for his church, that we might not fall away. And because that is the prayer of the Son, we can be assured that the Father will do what the Son asks.
Hebrews 4:14-16 says, “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Christ is our great high priest. Because he was tempted like us but without seeing that temptation through to evil behavior, he can satisfactorily be our perfect priest before God. He has truly earned the right to mediate between God and sinful man.
Isaiah 49:5-6 says, “And now the Lord says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him—for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord, and my God has become my strength—he says: ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’”
Israelite priests were just priests for Israel. Old Testament prophecy about Christ made statements like that that did in fact say that the nations would be saved through the servant that God would send, or, the messiah, the anointed one. In fact, how amazing is it that God says “it is too light a thing” that the messiah would be just for Israel. God is in the business of doing amazing things, so why not save a few nations while he’s at it?
Luke 24:50-53 says, “And he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.”
The final act of Jesus was to bless his disciples. As he ascended and was exalted to the right hand of the Father, the Son of God began his ministry of prayer for them. And he continues that ministry of prayer for us.
We may at times be discouraged with the state of affairs in which we find ourselves. Sometimes it’s because of our own doing, and sometimes it’s because stupid people are promoted to the highest level of incompetence, thereby making life hard on everyone. Either way, we often don’t know what to say. We worry that because we’ve made our own lives such a wreck or because other people have made life so hard in general that we’re at a loss for words.
The exaltation of Christ means many things, but one of them is that even as you stare into the void and have no words to say to God, even as you try, your great high priest, who was tempted like you and was faced with the same kind of discouragement, is seated next to our Father and having a prayerful conversation.
The exaltation of Christ also means that he is returning. The coming age is an earthly age, where heaven descends, the new Jerusalem comes out of heaven to the new earth, and Christ rules eternally. The nations are being converted and discipled so that the elect of the world will one day enter into the heavenly city.
One comedian joked that as he grew up in the church, he knew that the stories the preacher included in his sermons were totally made-up. They were always the same nondescript kind of people doing things no that one really does. Why were the sermons so boring and predictable? After all, as the comedian humored, the preacher had a week to work with a book that’s 2,000 years old.
So what exactly is a sermon supposed to be? Is it a book report? Is it a bunch of good advice? Is it the declaration of the greatest truth in world history?
Book reports are boring, and good advice doesn’t pay the debt of sin. When you listen to a sermon, what are you listening for? We should’t be hyper-critical, but surely there is a purpose to listening to one man speak for 30 minutes. What exactly makes up the content of a sermon?
Kerygma. noun. The necessary components of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Kēryssō, which gives us kerygma, is a Greek word from the New Testament itself that describes what people like John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, and Paul did as they proclaimed the good news. If you were to read the sections of the New Testament where that word is used to describe what they’re saying, you’ll come across a clear pattern of what preaching is supposed to be. Theologian Gregg Allison summarizes the five consistent themes in the New Testament kerygma:
You can find New Testament sermons in Matthew 5-7, Luke 4, Luke 24, Acts 2, Acts 7, Acts 8, Acts 17, as a few examples. Other places, such as 1 Timothy 4, gives some basic instruction on what is necessary in preaching. Those passages aren’t relevant only for preachers.
New Testament preachers realized that what they were preaching was simply the continuation and fulfillment of God’s promises to his people. So, they often followed an Old Testament pattern, which we get a glimpse of in Nehemiah 8:8, which says, “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”
When Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is at hand in Matthew 4:17, Jesus is declaring that his presence is the in-breaking of God’s kingdom. It has begun, even if there is a consummation yet to come. That hope the Old Testament saints had believed in? We are witnesses to it.
The kingdom of heaven was inaugurated through the person and work of Christ. He taught what the kingdom was like in places such as the sermon on the mount, he died an obedient and substitutionary death on our behalf, and he was resurrected to be vindicated and receive all authority in heaven and on earth. Jesus Christ is the king of the cosmos.
The Holy Spirit was sent at Pentecost, as promised by Christ before his ascension. The Spirit is the seal on the church and the guarantor of our inheritance. While the new covenant was instituted in Christ’s blood, the Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son to apply that redemption to us.
The second coming of Christ will be the end of the new covenant era and the beginning of the eternal state. Christ’s second coming will be public, every eye will see him, he will destroy the enemies of righteousness, and sin and death will no longer have any power.
Participation in the kingdom of God requires repentance from sin, belief in the one God has sent, and baptism into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Predestination and election cannot be defined apart from this.
It may very well be that not every specific sermon has an entire section devoted to simply reviewing Christ’s ascension and session, but do some? Any? Do the sermons at least assume that truth?
And of course, sermons will have substantial points of application. James warns us about being the kind of people who look in a mirror, turn our head, and forget what we look like a moment later. But where does that application come from? The latest show the preacher binge-watched, or the clear implication of the gospel?
The point is that there is one gospel, and the church proclaims that one gospel in everything we do. We may say many things, but if they are removed from the central truth of Christ and him crucified, we have strayed from the kerygma.
Mission work is hard work. And it’s not just overseas anymore. Our own nation needs its own missionaries. It can be difficult to do mission work or evangelize your own people group because you yourself are often as unaware of the culture’s influence on your own thinking as a fish is unaware that he’s in water. You’ve been in it so long that you make all kinds of concessions or capitulations between Scripture and culture.
When you do evangelism or mission work, you are bringing to bear the eternally significant word of God that was given 2000 years ago to a new people group that may have little to no context for understanding it. While this can be exciting, missionaries and evangelists have to keep an eye on the ways they proclaim Scriptural truth to modern people. Which brings us to today’s word.
Syncretism. noun. Contextualizing the gospel or biblical practices in a way that compromises essential truths as the gospel is sent into a new area or people group.
Note that syncretism is not on its face the same thing as contextualizing the truth of the gospel. Every culture will do that. I’ve even heard of rural Asian cultures that use rice and water for communion instead of bread and wine. Is that an appropriate mode of using contextual elements to make the same point? Well that begs the question, what’s the point of communion, and do the specific elements play a role in that? Some might say that bread specifically refers to Christ’s body in a way that rice does not or that wine is an image of Christ’s blood in a way that water is not. There are biblical patterns and types that are rich with meaning and significance. But, some might say that we’re making it hard for the Gentiles to turn to God.
That’s an example where good, well-meaning Christians might disagree but could part ways and not excommunicate the other. But what about something more serious and detrimental to the core of the faith?
When Catholicism went to Haiti, it blended with natural elements of the previous pagan religions. This resulted in the creation of Haitian voodoo. Ancient African pagan gods are equated with Roman Catholic saints. The people will hold a Catholic mass, leave the building, and go out back to sacrifice an animal to Bondye, the supreme god. They believe that the dead are still present and active. They also have priests and priestesses who can speak to the dead and even angels, or Iwa. This is all while they assume the identify of a Catholic.
That might seem extreme and obviously problematic for us, but, what about us? Surely we’re the pure church and do everything just like how the Bible tells us to, nothing more and nothing less. I mean, after all, we’re Baptists, so we baptize by immersion, just like Jesus was. But he was also baptized outside in flowing water. Why aren’t those aspects reflected in our current practice? Is being baptized, albeit by immersion, inside of a tub of stagnant tap water what Jesus had in mind? Why or why not? What’s the relationship between imagery and practice? What about using grape juice instead of wine? What are the considerations in making that choice? We should be convinced by Scripture that these changes are warranted, even if they seem as innocuous as water instead of wine.
Think about the way we tell the story of the birth of Christ. When we try to tell it in a way that is overly contemporary, we lose sight of all the prophecy that surrounded the incarnation. The timing of the story matters. The people and their way of life mattered. The company they kept mattered. Their religious observances mattered.
This is why it’s good to always be in a state of evaluation in the life the church. We may have inherited ideas or practices that are contrary to Scripture. If we are not always in a mindset of reformation, seeking firm adherence to the pattern of life laid out for us in Scripture, we run the risk of overcontextualizing and minimizing, or worse, losing, the gospel in our culture.