So far in the Creed, we see two great historical truths--Jesus died physically, and that He rose physically. Now we are confronted with two more—He physically ascended into heaven and will physically return to judge the living and the dead.
But why does He still need a physical body?
Acts 1: 1-12 tells us that a group of people standing on the Mount of Olives saw Jesus ascend into the clouds. Paul estimates this crowd at around five hundred. Afterwards, an angel told the crowd that Jesus would physically come back and in the same way, descending from the sky in a body. This statement prevents anyone else from claiming to be Jesus returned. If someone grew up here, He can’t be Jesus. The Second Coming requires His physical body returning from the sky.
In Jesus’ day, Greeks and Hebrews had different opinions about the bodily resurrection. The Greeks believed that when we die our body stays dead, but our souls went to a place they called Hades or Hellos (that’s where we get the word “hell”). There we exist in spirit form for all eternity, or until we are united again in essence with God. But the Jews believed the soul and the body were one. The soul is not immortal without a body, and any separation of the two is merely temporary. The Greeks believed that body and soul were both important. When Jesus died, his body was resurrected. A soul is not complete without a body. Jesus’ resurrection was proof of this. So God preserved His body after the resurrection, waiting for His return to earth.
After the resurrection, Jesus sat down “on the right hand of God,” as the New Testament says in several places.
Now, this is different. We don’t see Jesus referred to as being on “the right hand of God” in His existence before Christmas, when he took on human flesh. Instead, we see Jesus as God’s equal in the Trinity. Philippians 2: 6 says, “He did not consider equality with God something to be held on to, but emptied Himself.” Jesus isn’t on God’s right hand, He is God! So what does it mean that Jesus is on the “right hand of God?” It is obviously a metaphor, but for what?
When an earthly king sat on a throne, he alone was in charge. He had no equals. But he did have servants and advisors. There was always a number-two man in the kingdom who was usually referred to as the king’s “right hand man.” He made sure that the king’s word was carried out. In the senate, there is something similar. There is a majority leader, but he has a right-hand man, called the “majority whip.” He keeps the other senators in line with the party. The President has a chief of staff for the same reason.
Now kings and presidents may need a right hand man, but God doesn’t. He is capable of ruling without one. If God is all powerful, why does He need an assistant? If Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit are also God, and coequal with God, how can one be merely the assistant to the other? Jesus isn’t there to be God’s assistant.
But there is another meaning to the metaphor. Being at the king’s right hand meant something more than just carrying out orders. He also brought things to the king’s attention.
When Barack Obama was elected president, most African Americans rejoiced. Why wouldn’t they? They had one of their own as president. It was reasonable to assume that their concerns would be heard in Washington! When a presidential candidate picks a vice presidential candidate, he picks someone unlike himself, so that people of a different group will think there will be someone in Washington to represent them. We seek out the ear of the advisors to presidents, because then we know we will be heard. Jesus’ position on the right hand of God is not for His sake, but for ours. It is metaphor to assure us that our concerns will be put before the Lord. God won’t forget human flesh, but will remember it always, since He Himself took on flesh. God will never forget our flesh, since he took it upon himself.
But there is another part of the mystery of why Jesus needs a body now. When He comes again, He will come in a body. He doesn’t have to, but he will. The Creed echoes the Bible in telling us that He will come again in a physical body to judge the living and the dead.
I am convinced that our usual way of picturing the last judgment is wrong. Our popular vision of this judgment is based on a legalistic understanding, and that isn’t what God intended. Our picture of the last judgment is like this. God sits on a white throne. One by one, we are carried into a room where a list of sins is printed out on a big scroll. The sins on the scroll are detailed, “On March 6, Bill got angry with his friend and called him a bad name. On June 3, he lusted in his heart. On July 7, he skipped church” and so forth. But then, for the believer, we are let into heaven, and none of this counts against us. But if we are not, then the first item on the list sends us to Hell.
But then, there’s this other judgment, which is presented in I Corinthians 3: 13-15,
“each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.’
This is depressing, because it sounds as if God drags that scroll out again, after throwing it away! We aren’t let off the hook for judgment after all! The second judgment—the judgment of works, presumably determines whether we get a mansion in glory or a shack, or maybe a condo!
This is done (presumably) on the basis of how we have kept God’s law. Our judgment allegedly based on a series of commands and how well we keep them.
But there’s the problem. A command-based system of judgment doesn’t require Jesus’ personal return. All we need is a cosmic computer to keep track of whether or not we’ve done enough. It’s a self-centered approach to salvation, a morality tied to our willpower and knowledge of the Law. It doesn’t require Jesus, only a copy of the Ten Commandments. It is not changed lives and heart, only changed behaviors. Dallas Willard calls it the “Gospel of sin management” not the gospel of Jesus. In fact, it isn’t a Gospel at all, but bondage to the Law.
But there is another way of looking at the last judgment that does require Christ’s presence. It’s the one I believe the Bible really teaches.
I’m a member of a health club, though I confess that I don’t go as often as I should. Frankly, it makes me feels a little uncomfortable. I go there in my T-shirt and shorts, displaying my lumpy, pasty, wrinkly body, and I’m confronted with perfect, beautiful bodies all around me. There are gorgeous people who must spend every spare minute lifting weights and keeping in shape! They aren’t condescending or judgmental to me. They don’t have to be. I feel convicted of my own flabbiness, just by being in their presence.
Some feel that way when they go to church. They look at the people around them and don’t see their struggles or flaws, but only the outside illusion of goodness. They feel judged just by showing up. Some people even feel that by comparing themselves to others, they come out ahead. They can be smug about their righteousness, because they have checked off all the boxes that convince themselves in their own that they are pretty good people.
But one day, they will stand at the last judgment, and there is Jesus. Jesus doesn’t have to say a thing to judge us, he just has to show up. We know the kind of life He lived in that flesh, and it was a lot better than any of us imagined. That body is a trophy of righteousness, glorified in the flesh by His perfect life and sinless death. Beside him, we all look weak and imperfect.
Jesus in the flesh is a judgment to us all. We don’t need the law to condemn us. We only need to look at the life that Jesus lived, and realize that this was what He had in mind for us.
This may seem like bad news to us, but it is really good news. John tells us this in 1 John 3: 1, “And we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see him as He is.”
The Christian life is not one of rules and regulation but one of humble imitation of Jesus. Jesus is presented before us as a model to copy. We are to spend our whole lives, not following some rule book, but imitating His divine perfection. Our failure is due to the frailty of our flesh. We are like someone trying to copy a picture exactly right with bad eyesight and a shaky hand. We do what we can, but fail always. But when Jesus returns, we at last see clearly what we were seeking to accomplish. But in that judgment, he does not hand out rewards for being good artists or punishments for being bad ones. Instead, he takes our poorly realized images, and turns them into perfection. Our dirty mirrors are polished and our rough sketches are filled with glorious color. We become like Him, and remain like Him forever.
Jesus will return in the flesh, to glorify us in the flesh. He returns to show us what we are and will be, and to make us like Himself. Our bodies crippled with age and abused with sin becomes beautiful. Our hearts, broken and gnarled by the stresses of life take on His beauty, until we are fit for a life in His presence forever.