As we have seen in our previous installments in this series (part 1, part 2), the ancient Apostles’ Creed is a wonderful igniter of twenty-first century worship. Both the doctrinal content of the creed and the biblical narrative it reflects make this document rich with gospel.
As such, it makes perfect sense that roughly half of the creed centers on the person and work of Jesus Christ, whose accomplishments became the gospel. In this portion of our walk through the creed, we will focus on the initial confession of belief in Jesus, the second Person of the triune Godhead.
After we confess belief in God the Father Almighty, we pair that confession with this statement:
“…and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord”
There is good reason for pairing confession of God the Father with God the Son in this instance. It helps the creedal confessor affirm that the Son, while proceeding from and submissive to the Father, is nonetheless equal to the Father. We pair the Father with the Son because we only know the Father through the Son (Matthew 11:27), because the Son does the Father’s will (John 4:34, John 10:25), and because the Son is equal to the Father (John 5:18)
We know these things not primarily from the creed but from the Scriptures the creed summarizes. When the Apostle Peter proclaims, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), Jesus affirms his conviction and promises that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church that holds to this doctrine (Matthew 16:17). Here is the Apostle Paul’s confession:
“God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9).
By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul has just told us three important things about Jesus that the creed affirms: he is Son, Christ, and Lord.
Jesus the Son
The Bible speaks of Jesus as “son” in two primary ways: Son of Man and Son of God. Both are important titles that are alike in some ways but also unique. The title “Son of Man” traditionally carries apocalyptic significance. It is a messianic title, and although it has been applied to multiple figures, as it pertains to the Christ, it typically conveys a sense of divine royalty and messianic fulfillment. When the Bible prophesies about the coming Son of Man, foretelling the arrival of the Christ, it refers to the climactic appearing of the divine king ordained by God to set his people free and set all to rights. It is not, strictly speaking, a designation of divinity—meaning “Son of Man” does not inherently mean that the bearer of the title is God. But the other main way the Bible speaks of Jesus’ sonship in fact does.
The title of “Son of God” speaks not just to Jesus special relationship to the Father but to his unique nature shared with the Father. Another ancient document of the orthodox faith, the Nicene Creed explains:
. . . the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
In one sense, of course, all believers are sons (and daughters) of God. But not in the same essential sense that Jesus is God’s Son. In fact, John 1:12 tells us that it is only through Jesus’ Sonship (which John 1 and other texts teach us is eternal) that we receive the right to become children of God ourselves. But Jesus didn’t have to qualify that way. He has this Sonship unequivocally and unconditionally — again, eternally.
When the Scriptures say Jesus is the Son of God, then, they are not just pointing out that Jesus is in relationship to the Father as a son is to his father but that Jesus is in relationship to the Father as very God to very God. Even the Pharisees understood this: “This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18). And in John 10, when Jesus says that he and the Father “are one” (John 10:30) the grumblers don’t hear him to be merely saying he’s in agreement with the Father but that he and the Father are of the same essence, which is why they take up stones to kill him for blasphemy (John 10:33). They say, “You a man are making yourself out to be God.”
Jesus the Christ
Like Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:9, the Creed refers to Jesus’ royal title as well: “Christ.” It is very common for people to know the name “Jesus Christ” but not to understand the meaning of this name. “Christ” is, as it happens, not Jesus’ last name! No, the word Christ (which means “anointed one”) is a reference to Jesus’ kingship. Like the designation “Son of Man,” the title “the Christ” refers to Jesus’ role as messiah of Israel.
Calling Jesus “the Christ” bestows on him the fulfillment of the Jewish expectation of the coming King, the one sent by God to finally set all to rights, restore the kingdom, and usher in the age of shalom.
But biblically speaking, Jesus’ kingship is not on par with the kings who came before. And while the Jews did not expect that the messiah would be God — a common anachronistic mistake of contemporary Christians — the truth revealed in the new covenant is lurking in the shadows of the old covenant nonetheless. Throughout the prophets, God promises to be Israel’s king himself. See Isaiah 43:15 and Isaiah 44:6 for example.
The prevailing Jewish messianic expectation in Jesus’ day was not for a God-Man, but what an astounding surprise that God defied their expectations by giving them one anyway. In fact, the story the Scriptures tell is that of God himself becoming King. In the messianic prophecy of Isaiah 9:6, we learn this about the anointed one to come: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” [emphasis added]. The king will be called Mighty God!
The New Testament connects Jesus’ kingship with his deity as well. Paul in Romans 9:5 tells us that the Christ is God over all. In Hebrews 1:8 we read, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,” and this is said to the Son.
Jesus the Lord
So far we have seen that the Creed, along the line of 1 Corinthians 1:9, calls us to confess belief in Jesus as Son and as Lord. Then we see a third title employed in both Scripture and in the creed of the apostles, a third title: “Lord.”
This is the shortest line to draw, as Jesus’ Lordship is an affirmation of his sovereignty, and an affirmation of sovereignty — especially the kind of total sovereignty ascribed in Hebrews 1:3 (he upholds the universe with his powerful word), Colossians 1:15, and Revelation 5:13 — is an affirmation of deity.
When the Scriptures say Jesus is Lord, they are not just saying he is in charge but that he is in charge as God is in charge because in fact he is God (e.g. Hebrews 1:3 “the radiance of his glory and the exact imprint of his nature”). Throughout the Gospels, in fact, references to Jesus as “Lord” include employments of the Old Testament use of the divine name LORD (Yahweh), equating the Great I AM with the incarnate Word.
Faithful Trinitarianism is integral to orthodox Christianity, and the Apostles’ Creed helps us in this regard. Yes, it positions coverage of the three Persons of the Godhead in relation to their prominence in the narrative of the Scriptures, but all three are present, and they are present in the confession precisely because of what the Bible tells us about them. They are each distinctly but totally and eternally and simultaneously the one God.
In this way, the Creed is a faithful guide to saving belief. If we would believe in Christ for salvation, we must make sure it is the real Christ we believe in.
Jared C. Wilson is the author of Your Jesus Is Too Safe, Abide, Gospel Wakefulness, and Seven Daily Sins as well as articles and essays appearing in numerous publications. He is the pastor of Middletown Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. Visit him online at www.gospeldrivenchurch.com.