Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 19 - Seated at the Right Hand of God, from where He will Come to Judge
Question 50: Why is it added,
and sits at the right hand of God?
Answer 50: Christ ascended into heaven
to manifest himself there
as Head of his church,
through whom the Father governs all things.
Question 51: How does the glory of Christ, our Head, benefit us?
Answer 51: First,
by his Holy Spirit
he pours out heavenly gifts
upon us, his members.
by his power
he defends and preserves us
Against all enemies.
Every Dutch person knows Prince William of Orange (1533-1584), the “Father of the Fatherland”. As citizens of a free nation, they profit from his life’s work up to the present time. They are grateful for what he did, but that does not mean that presently they can still count on him. He is someone from the past. He is no longer accessible to them, and vice-versa. He cannot be asked for his help anymore.
What about Jesus? We do not want to compare his life’s work with that of the Prince. But is Jesus also someone from the past for us? Do we only reap the benefits of his earlier work? Or has he remained with us in time? Because only then can we also count on him for today. And we do. We have complete trust in him, every hour of the day. In short, we believe in him.
He is and remains our contemporary. That surely is promising!
Jesus Lives and is with us
We know Jesus only from the oldest book we have in the house. This book (or rather, these books) tells us the history of Jesus on earth. A period of about thirty years that ended with his return to heaven. Did he withdraw into heaven since then, without being involved with the earth any longer? How does the NT describe Christ’s activity after his ascension? It does not merely cast a retrospective glance at the now departed Jesus. The apostles do not write their memoirs about the Jesus of old.
The NT never speaks of Jesus as someone from a past time period. He lives — but it is not only that. We also believe that about William of Orange. But Jesus is with us. After his ascension, he was so closely involved with his church on earth that he said to the persecutor of the church, Paul: “Why are you persecuting Me?”1
As a human being, Jesus is as far away from us as all the believers who have died. He sits at God’s right hand. But from there he pours out gifts into us on earth and protects and preserves us. He has direct contact with us. No less than when he was still on earth.
When William of Orange was assassinated, he ceased to be Prince. He left all his high titles behind on earth. His presence in heaven is no more important than that of a believing servant girl of that time. But Jesus retains all his mighty names and titles. He continues to use all his powers in his work among people on earth.
In an intensified way: by pouring out His Spirit.
On a broader scale: to the ends of the earth.
At God’s Right Hand
As a human being, Jesus cannot be in more than one place at a time. Even in heaven he is not everywhere at once. He is seated there at God’s right hand. We will not philosophize about how to picture that scene. After all, God’s right hand is everywhere.2 Not only in heaven but just as much on the earth.3
And furthermore, Stephen did not see Jesus seated, but standing at God’s right hand.4 He himself says that he is between the golden candlesticks (i.e., his church).5 He is therefore constantly in action. As Calvin said, he did not go to heaven to count the stars.6
That Jesus is seated at God’s right hand points, in any case, to the powerful position he has there as a human being.7
He is the driving force behind world events. He directs it through the course that God has determined for it. His end goal is for his church to reach heavenly joy and glory. If he were not present — you should not even think about it! The Apostle John was forced to imagine that for one moment.8
At that time he was stuck on an island off the Turkish coast. In a vision he saw a scroll in God’s right hand. It contained God’s plan for the world and especially his plan for the church. It also contained the plan for us, up to and including our arrival on the new earth.
All of that was contained in it in great detail. But it could not come out, because the book was tightly closed. Seven seals kept it hermetically sealed. An angel raised his mighty voice to all the corners of the earth: who is worthy (=authorized) to open the scroll?
Deadly silence. John wept. Who would not weep? Church history seemed to be at a complete standstill. But then...the announcement of a lion. How strong! What John was shown was a lamb. How weak! Moreover, it had been slain.
Yet it was standing!
“Worthy is the Lamb who paid the price of death; worthy is the Lamb who gave my soul its breath.”9 He took the scroll and broke its seals. Thundering explosions were the result. Terrible disasters proceeded from that book and ravaged the earth. Difficult times were also to come for the church.
But it is the Father — through Christ my Father — who rules the world in this way: according to this scroll and through this Lamb. What does that mean?
In the World, Everything Revolves Around the Church
The church is at the centre of the world. That is a strong statement. Because practice shows that it hardly counts. There is plenty of news, but the church hardly plays a significant role in it.
This is because we only see the visible side of the world’s events. But there is also a flip side. And that is where we find the rudder of the world’s course. That is where God rules and decides. Invisible to the lenses of the best cameras, inaudible to the most sensitive sound equipment. But the Bible gives all the necessary background information about it. Behind the scene of all world events there is our great Man. He is at the helm. But is it not a disadvantage that he is so far away? According to the Catechism that is not the case because he ascended into heaven, not to be hidden, but to manifest himself there as the Head of his Christian Church. He sat down at God’s right hand precisely in order to rule the world from there. He could not have taken a better position for it.Knowing this gives a surprising perspective on what we are experiencing. The Father rules — and does so through Christ.10
Our Saviour knew what would happen today. God does nothing in our lives apart from him. Even that bad thing that happened to us happened according to his intention. Yet because he is behind it all we may be even more assured that it serves for our salvation.
How Can We Tell That God is Ruling Through Christ?
The Catechism was written in a time of bloody persecution. And still Christians are being persecuted. But the church here confesses that it is as safe as can be for them: Christ protects and preserves us with his power against all enemies. How should we picture this protective umbrella of Christ? How safe are we under it?
A statement of Jesus is very instructive: “My kingdom is not of this world.”11 It does not fit in line with all other kingdoms. And the King of that kingdom has no place in the world rankings of rulers, not even as number one. He does not allow himself to be compared to any of them. Therefore the way in which he protects us is also very special. He has power. With it he really protects us against all enemies, even while they are oppressing us! We can feel trapped like miners in a collapsed tunnel. Yet even in that dark shaft nothing can separate us from his love. Even there he pours out heavenly gifts into us through his Spirit. In the darkest valley he provides an open connection to heaven. Because that is where the gifts come from. Therefore they are heavenly gifts: faith, hope, love, peace and joy. And they do not trickle in one drop at a time, for he pours them out into us. This is why Christians can be so wonderfully at peace in their greatest sorrows. While they may be treated like cattle to be slaughtered, they are still more than victorious.12
One day this will be visible to the whole world. That is the topic of the next question.
Question 52: What comfort is it to you
that Christ will come to judge
the living and the dead?
Answer 52: In all my sorrow and persecution
I lift up my head
and eagerly await
as judge from heaven
the very same person
who before has submitted himself
to the judgment of God
for my sake,
and has removed all the curse from me.
He will cast all his and my enemies
into everlasting condemnation,
but he will take me and all his chosen ones
into heavenly joy and glory.
On what do we base our future expectation? Nearly all people living today will be gone from the earth in a hundred years. That is certain, but even apart from that the future possibilities for the earth itself are not without limits. The sun cannot provide endless heat and light. Eventually there is an end to all rich resources from the earth.13
Not to mention nuclear weapons and the threat to our environment from human mismanagement. But the gospel is filled with perspective about the future, from beginning to end. When Adam had wasted his and our future completely, God opened up new perspectives. He did so by announcing the coming of the Messiah.14 This remained the ongoing message of the OT: He is coming. Even in the darkest times, this promise was the window that offered a view to the future.
This future became reality when Christ had come.15
The NT begins with that great news. But he did not remain on earth. His coming was not yet final. We too are waiting for him who is coming. To the last page of the Bible, the message of the advent rings out: “Surely I am coming soon”.16
Are we happy about it? Or do we rather dread it? For he is coming to judge. He has been appointed by God to be the judge of the living and the dead.17 One day we will have to give account without being able to hide anything.18 Even every vain word will be accounted for.19 Our deepest motives are brought to the surface.20 What is hanging over us?
That thought can make us restless and may strongly inhibit our desire for his coming.
The Judge is Our Saviour
The Catechism does not even inquire whether we are dreading it but asks without any equivocation about the comfort that his coming gives me.
Yet it has sensed our difficulty very well: will Jesus as Judge be as loving to us then as he was when he was born in Bethlehem? Or will he suddenly be much more strict? We joyfully celebrate Christmas. And Easter. And ascension. With a thankful heart we hear him give his assurance to us at the Lord’s Supper table: I stood before the judgment seat of God loaded with your guilt! But what will he be when he reappears? There is no doubt about it: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.21
Therefore, we expect him as Judge from heaven who first put himself before God’s judgment seat for my sake and took away the curse from me. It is precisely he who was born for me in a stable.
It is precisely he who hung on the cross for me.
He is not suddenly different as Judge. His judgment of tomorrow is an extension of what he has done for me then and what he promises me today. Scripture does not merely soothe us by saying that everything will be all right and that we need not dread it, but rather it encourages us to look forward to his coming! With our heads held high; with an eager longing for it. For together with the elect he will take me to himself into heavenly joy and glory.
He is Coming
According to the NT, Jesus is coming back. Of course, because he was on earth before. It will be his second visit. That is why it speaks of his return, his second coming. Let us not think that Jesus will return from a long absence. As if the earth remained outside his field of attention all that time. As if the contact on his part had been any less in the meantime. Then again the thought might arise that he might have changed because it had been so long since he had last been on earth. In order to exclude any such misunderstanding the NT speaks not only of his return but also and more often of his coming.22 This reinforces the idea that Jesus is always with us. Even between his first and second coming. We are not out of his thoughts for a moment. He remains the same for us and continues to work on our salvation. Right now he is on his way to us. He is standing at the door.23
Why a Final Judgment?
“Whoever believes in the Son is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already.” Jesus said this of people who were still in the prime of their life.24 But then the final judgment seems unnecessary.
This would apply even more strongly to the dead. If they were believers they may reign as kings with Christ immediately after their death.25 Why must they still be judged after that? It becomes even more puzzling when we know that the final judgment takes place after the resurrection of all people. But that is already a resurrection either to life or to judgment.26 With it everyone’s destiny is determined for eternity. This applies to those as well who would still be alive at Christ’s coming and who will be changed in an indivisible moment.27 In the meantime, the believers among them have joyfully gone to meet Christ in the air.28
Why, after all of this, would there still be a final judgment? It has the appearance as if everything still needs to be sorted out! Yet we should not look for a problem here. The final judgment serves first and foremost to honour Christ. That is the crowning moment when publicly and definitively all his hard work is recognized. As far as we are concerned, this can also be compared to the official presentation of diplomas, although all graduates are informed whether they have passed their courses or not. At the same time, this final judgment is more than a confirmation of what has already been established. It heralds a new era, for all people. Because after this judgment he will hand over all his and my enemies to eternal destruction. Then everyone will receive his or her final destination.
Will the eternal punishment really last forever? Then there is some sort of Dachau, from which no one will ever be able to escape. No man and no angel. Next to the new heaven and earth full of cheers there will be the gnashing of teeth that never ends. For many this is unthinkable — and therefore unacceptable. They cannot reconcile this with God’s love.29
We are not going to tackle this emotional argument with a counter-argumentation. But in view of all the questions that can be asked here, we want to bow reverently to what Jesus has revealed. No one offered as much as he did for the salvation of the world. No one knew the love of God for people better than he did. Therefore, it means everything to us that he spoke of a fire that will not be quenched,30 of an eternal fire31 and an eternal punishment.32 Nowhere does the Bible give cause to toy with the idea of a second chance of redemption after the last day.33
There are two things we would like to note here. First, that God is entirely just in his judgment. He does no one an injustice. Everyone receives according to what he himself has done, good or bad.34 It is of great importance whether we knew the gospel. The well-to-do ladies and gentlemen from Capernaum who knew Jesus and yet did not believe him, will be punished more severely than the city of Sodom, which had no morals.35
And secondly it should be remembered that these grave warnings are fully part of the gospel. They are a red-hot warning to underline God’s urgent message: be reconciled to God through Christ, or you are lost forever.
Will He Be Coming Soon?
For more than 400 years it has been on the lips of the believers in the church: “in all my sorrow and persecution I…” await Christ from heaven.
He has not come. So did we expect him in vain for 400 years, and during all those centuries before that? For already in the much older NT the assurance can be heard: “Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay.”36 But he did not come. Was the NT too optimistic? It cannot be, because God himself is speaking there. The NT says more: before this, a program must be completed that takes time. For instance, the gospel must first be preached to all nations.37 And much more needs to be done.38 Christ had already been in heaven for several decades when Peter had to deal with people who scoffed at the fact that that day had not come. There is no evidence, however, that Peter himself was disappointed that it took so long. With the Lord there is no question of delay. Nor is that day predictable, for it will come like a thief.39
But why does it speak of a short time? It is just that it raises expectations. For almost 2,000 years now. Why does the NT not succinctly state that the date is a complete secret? Because then it would be ignored that Jesus is on his way all these centuries. He is on his way. The judge is already standing at the door.42 He already has the doorknob in his hand, so to speak. Not just today but already in Peter’s time. That was reality for all those centuries. Jesus could come at any time. That is how it was in Peter’s time. That is how it is today.
Faith expects him any and every day.