Exploring the Apostles Creed
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Part 7: ‘ ... and He will come to judge the living and the dead ...’

by Rev. Robert Griffith

So far the Apostles Creed has been nothing but good news for us. It's good news to hear that the world we live in is made by a loving God; it's good news to know that God has come among us born of a woman; it's good news to know that God has willingly endured suffering and humiliation and shame - all for our sake; it's very good news to hear that the Incarnate One has been raised up to life and reigns as Lord in the glory of the Father. Then we get to this next line of the Creed...“and He will come to judge the living and the dead.”
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All of a sudden we feel as though the Creed has fine print. You know, like a television advertisement for a product or service which sounds absolutely amazing - but then you learn about the hidden fee or the delivery cost or the required subscription - then it’s not so amazing. That’s how it is reading this Creed. We are going so well and then suddenly there's a catch: judgment. We didn't see that coming. Is this the bad news? Is it bad news to hear that Jesus Christ will come as our judge? Is the Creed sort of a mixture of the good and the bad and are we meant to swallow both together?
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We often think about judgment as a bad thing, as something sinister and dreadful. I can remember as a boy in Sunday school being given the impression that judgment is really bad news, something to be morbidly afraid of. Well, I want us all to understand something today: believing that Jesus Christ is coming as our judge is actually part of the gospel and the gospel is always good news! This is not a little bit of fear mixed in with God’s love. This is not a little bit of dread and horror, mixed in with grace. The whole Creed, the whole gospel is nothing but good news for us and for all people who accept it. Our belief in the last judgement is part of the joy of the gospel. I want us to try and grasp that truth today and I feel I must warn you that this sermon may leave you with more questions than answers – and I am ok with that – as long as you take those questions back to God and allow the whole counsel of Scripture and the Holy Spirit to lead you to the right answers.
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Now one of the central themes running right through the gospel of John is that Jesus comes into the world bringing judgment. But it's very interesting the way John talks about this. Let's read a couple of verses from John chapter 3:

“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” ( John 3:19-20 )

To judge is to discriminate. To judge is to separate. To judge is to make a distinction. If you think of a law court, the Judge is the person who is able to discern the truth and then to act on it. The Judge separates: over here is guilty and over here is not guilty. Judgment always means to separate and the gospel of John does not portray Jesus as someone who is good to some people and not good to others. The Gospel of John says Jesus is the light of the world and that light shines equally on everyone.  The same light shines on all people, but some people react differently to that light. The same light shines on all and there are some who walk out freely and gladly into that light - then there are others who clamp their eyes shut and cringe back into the darkness. If you have been in a dark room for a long time and someone turns on the lights, your first reaction is to close your eyes. There’s something unwelcome about light if you're not used to it so you cringe away from it or, if you are in bed, you pull the covers over your head so you can't see the light.
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John's Gospel portrays Jesus’ judgment in that way. He is nothing but light; He does nothing but shine. But some people willingly shrink away from that light. In John chapter nine, Jesus heals a man born blind and the man who was blind can now see and He worships Jesus; he loves Jesus; he is overwhelmed by not just the physical, that he can now see, but by the fact that Jesus is the true light, so he worships Him. Then there are others who reject the Light of the World. They are hostile and full of bitterness. Look at what Jesus says at the end of this whole story in John 9, after the blind man has worshipped Him and the spiritual teachers have rejected Jesus, this is what He says in verse 39:

“I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” ( John 9:39 )

It sounds paradoxical, but do you see what's happened? God has turned on the floodlights and some people who were longing for light stepped out into the light and welcomed it. But some people under the brightness of that same light, have shrunk back into the shadows and screwed their eyes shut and rejected it. Here's the point of John's Gospel. It's not that Jesus is gracious towards some people and then full of wrath towards others. It's not that Jesus comes and says, “I like you and I like you, but I don't like you and you and you because you've done bad things.” Jesus is full of grace and truth. There's nothing in Him except the love of God. There's nothing shining out of Him, except grace. But that grace produces a separation in the way people respond, the way people react to it.
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Now a great second century Church father by the name of Origen was intrigued by all these passages that speak about judgment, all these passages that speak about a torment, you know, passages in the Bible that speak of a fire that torments some people after this life. Well Origen looked at all those passages and was very puzzled by them and he said this could not mean that God is gracious towards some people and then lights a match and burns other people because that would mean there are two different gods  -  a good God full of grace and truth and then some kind of dark, horrible torturing, tormenting God who is punishing others. Origen says that can't be true. This whole Creed falls apart if you start thinking that there are two different faces to God, that God could one day turn around and look completely different from the God we've met in Jesus. That can't be true. Jesus is the full expression of the character of God. God is exactly like Jesus, God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all, no shadow.
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So Origen says if God is nothing but light, nothing but grace, nothing but love, how could it be that some people experience this torment? Well Origen says, it must mean that Heaven and Hell are essentially the same reality, but experienced in two different ways. Then Origen gives this example. He says, think of a classroom where the lecture or lesson is going on a bit long. Some people in that class are absolutely enraptured by the joy of learning and discovering and so they are hanging off every word. They feel as if this class could go on forever and they would still be there soaking in the knowledge. Then right next to them is another person who is tired and needs to go to the toilet and has a splitting headache. Every word the lecturer says is like a nail getting hammered into their skull and they can't wait to get out of there. For them that place is torture. Origen says in a classroom like that, both people are experiencing the same thing. They're both in the same reality but one of them is experiencing joy and the other feels like they are consumed by a fire on the inside.
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Origen says that must be what heaven and hell is like. You are surrounded by God's love, God's grace, God's light shining bright. But if you're not accustomed to it, if you don't like it, if your heart is somehow closed to love, if your heart is shrivelled and dry and you’re not used to drinking in God's goodness, then you experience light and love as a kind of torment - as a sort of fire. So that was Origen’s way of trying to convey this sense in the Gospel of John, that when the light comes, it produces judgment, not because of anything in Jesus, not because He is rejecting anybody, but because some people reject the light that He brings. It’s not because there are two different places - a place for the good people and a place for the bad people – we are all bad people – we all stand on level ground before the cross of Christ. But the same self-giving expression of God's love and grace produces different responses in us. I don't know if you find that helpful but that's one of the ways that early Christians tried to struggle with this language about judgment and torment.
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Regardless of how they understood this, their greatest commitment was to make sure whatever we say about judgment, we don't end up with two different gods, a good god for the goodies and a bad God for the baddies. That would destroy the gospel. That would destroy the whole message of the New Testament. That would mean Jesus is just one of the things God is doing in the world – rather than the only thing God is doing in the world. It’s all about Jesus or we have nothing.
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Now, that's all very well and good, but we still have to talk about judgment - this separation between different groups of people, right? So let’s go a little deeper here as I ask you this. Who are the good people? Who are the bad people? If judgment is about separation - which one are you? Most of us would admit that we're a mixture of both right? Is any of us completely good, completely open to love, completely responsive to light and life and joy? Or are we a mixture of both? Is anyone you've ever met really so completely twisted and self-enclosed and shrivelled up on the inside that there's no light at all getting through? Is anyone either completely on one side of the fence or the other? Surely all of us are a mixture of good and bad – even born again, redeemed believers.
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Well, another one of the great early Christian thinkers, St. Augustine, was really puzzled by this. So he said that if you think of two plants, planted side by side in the garden and the two plants grow up together. Maybe one of these plants is a tomato plant but the other one is a weed that looks just like a tomato plant and so they can grow up so intertwined, that you can't easily tell the difference. Now if you tried to separate them, you would end up pulling up the good plant as well as the bad. Does that sound like a parable you know? So Augustine said that God just lets the good and the bad keep growing up together until the end of the world and then one day God will separate them. But he wasn't just talking about good and bad people. He was talking about the good and the bad growing up side by side within our lives. Just think of it. Haven't you ever made a really big mistake which turned out to be somehow glorious, somehow wonderful? Haven't you ever done something wrong, that still produced beautiful effects? The good and the bad were mixed up. There are people who have a failed marriage and they feel they had married the wrong person and this whole part of their life was a big mess – a big mistake. And yet the children brought into the world from that marriage were the best thing that ever happened to them. Was it a mistake or was it a blessing? Was it good or bad? It was both. These two plants are so closely intertwined that you can't even tell the difference sometimes. You can't even tell which is which.
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Now think about the other side of this. Have you ever done something that you were so persuaded was the right thing - you were acting in a blaze of righteousness and goodwill, but you found out later that it was selfish and destructive? It was a proud thing you did and it actually injured someone else. It was not good at all. Have you ever looked back on your own good deeds and thought the things I thought were the best were actually the worst things I have done ... those things I thought were a mistake, were the things that actually produced good fruit. Do you see what I mean
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Augustine was intrigued by this - the good and the bad in our lives grow up so closely together. But he said, we can never really tell the difference. We can never really tell for sure if what we're about to do is completely good or bad. It's too mixed up. What does all that mean? Well, Augustine said it means it's good news. It means it's not my job ultimately to separate the good and the bad from my life. Apart from the obvious things which God has made very clear to us. But ultimately, we must accept that the good and the bad are mixed up together. Every family is a good example of this. The things that are the best and the things that are most painful in our lives, are sometimes so close that you can't separate them. Well, Augustine says, we should accept that and trust that one day, God will be the judge, God will separate what we can't separate and extract what's bad and leave the good, so that our lives will actually become perfect. Everything truly bad that we couldn't separate will then be taken and thrown away in the fire.
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So Augustine said that the judgment is actually a blessing; it’s the best thing that will ever happen to us; when one day Christ will come and extract all the good in our lives and separate it from all the bad. Then, for the first time in our lives, we will really see the difference. For the first time in our lives, we will be able to look at the good and rejoice and we will be able to look at the bad and accept that it's already judged in Christ and that it's done away with. Our judgment as believers will be our ultimate purification. Our judgment will be our deliverance. It will be the greatest blessing that ever happens to us. So again let me drive home this point: we are not talking about a God who blesses some people and judges and condemns others. But rather within our own lives, God brings a judgment, which is itself part of grace. The judgment that we look forward to at the end of our lives is really part of God's grace to us. It is part of the good news of the gospel, that Jesus Christ will come to judge the living and the dead.
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If we live towards the last judgement, then we're able to be patient with one another and patient with ourselves. If we live towards the last judgement, we're able to be free just to go on living. If we're still living with the fantasy that human society is perfectible, then which institution are you going to get involved in;  which part of our broken society are you going to get on board with because none of them work properly. Which political party are you going to join when none of them are going to be perfect this world. When you accept that Christ is the judge, it sets us free to be fully involved in this world, without feeling that perfection has to be our goal. To know Christ and to be found in Him is our goal. It is Christ Who will perfect us; it is Christ Who will finish what He started in us: It is Christ who will bring the perfect transformation of this world into the place of peace and justice and righteousness.
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Now here's the last thing: at the end of the day, Jesus Christ will come to judge the living and the dead. Here's the main thing to keep in mind. It's the same Jesus Christ we're talking about. We're not saying well, there was one person named Jesus who was born of a virgin, suffered, crucified, dead and buried and rose again .. and then there's this other son of God who's coming one day to judge us. We're saying the same Jesus we meet in the gospels, born of a virgin; the same Jesus who feasted with sinners and tax collectors; the same Jesus who was interested in outsiders - the poor, the downcast and the oppressed; the same Jesus, who, when He saw the woman caught in adultery, said, ‘Where are your condemners? Neither do I condemn you - go and sin no more.’
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Now of course those who love darkness and cannot stand the light will cringe and withdraw and hide from the Light of the World just as many did when Jesus walked the earth. Many people ran from Jesus and remained in darkness. Only those who embraced the Light of the World were drawn deeper into Christ. But it’s the same Jesus who liberates, Who heals, Who forgives all sins ... this same Jesus is coming again, as our judge. What could be more comforting than the thought that this Jesus is the One Who at the end, will separate, will shine a perfect light into all the darkness in our hearts and in our lives and all the darkness in our world will be cast out. That is good news! That is the good news of the gospel. He will come to judge the living and the dead. Thanks be to God. So the mission of Christ, which is the only mission we have, is to lead people to that light now so they may embrace their Lord and their salvation. May God empower us to do just that!  Amen.

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FEEDBACK: robert@gunnedahbaptist.org.au
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