In the Presbyterian Church in America we have a number of prominent voices that persistently remind us of the duty to preach Christ (1 Corinthians 2:2). Such reminders must be welcomed, for, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed” (1 Corinthians 16:22). However, preaching Christ means preaching the whole of Christ, not only with a focus on His humiliation, but also with an emphasis on His heavenly ministry toward sinners on earth. And, here, I’ve observed, our preaching could be improved. Knowing that Christ died for my sins is of first importance (1 Corinthians 15:3); but knowing that Christ, as a merciful high priest in heaven, pities me—now, while I remain a sinner on earth—flows out of the reality of His death and resurrection. A robust Christology, with an emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s relation to Christ Himself, ensures that we preach the whole of Christ’s work, including His heavenly ministry.
One theologian who did not forget the importance of Christ’s heavenly ministry was Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680), a Puritan who played no little role in the shaping of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Whatever one may think about the Puritans, they certainly did not show a lack of Christological thought. What follows is a basic summary of Goodwin’s work The Heart of Christ in Heaven Towards Sinners on Earth, where the author shows us the glories and usefulness of Christ’s priestly work in heaven.
In the first place, believers can be assured of Christ’s love toward them because of the influence of the Father and the Spirit on the heart of Christ’s human nature. The Father has given a perpetual command to Christ to love sinners. As a result, Christ’s heart continues the same forever (compare John 6:37-40 with John 10:15-18). In other words, if Christ wishes to continue in the Father’s love He must show His love to the Father by perpetually loving those whom the Father has given to Him. This love, however, is not forced but arises freely out of the very nature of Christ Himself. Since God is love, Christ as God’s Son morally reflects the character of His Father. So it is only natural for Christ, as the visible image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), to love. Besides the Father, the Holy Spirit influences Christ who was given the Spirit without measure (John 3:34).
Christology only makes sense in light of pneumatology (a doctrine of the Holy Spirit) and vice versa. In Christ’s states of humiliation and exaltation, the Holy Spirit rests upon Him and in Him. Whatsoever we receive from Christ He first receives in Himself. So, in the words of Goodwin, “one reason why this oil ran then so plentifully down on the skirts of this our High Priest, that is, on his members the apostles and saints, and so continues to do unto this day, is because our High Priest and Head himself was then afresh anointed with it.” As part of His reward, Christ receives the Holy Spirit “in the utmost measure that the human nature is capable of.” In fact, the Spirit rests upon Him more abundantly in heaven than He did on earth. Because this is so, the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, etc.) in Galatians 5:22 refers not only to Christians, but also to Christ in heaven.
In relation to us, the Holy Spirit persuades us of Christ’s love—He prays in us because Christ prays for us. The Spirit is an intercessor on earth because Christ is an intercessor in heaven. The relationship between the Spirit and Christ is organic, and for that reason believers possess “another Christ” (John 14:18; 16:16). Indeed, the ministry of the Spirit in the believer is the ministry of Christ. Because the Spirit indwells us we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:12-16), for the Spirit who dwells in Christ’s (human) heart also dwells in our hearts and maintains the loving communion that takes place between believers and their Savior. Thus, because the Spirit dwells in Christ’s heart and knows the heart of Christ, we are assured of Christ’s love, mercy, and compassion toward us because we possess that same Spirit, the Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:9).
In spite of these two influences upon Christ, believers may still think that because of Christ’s glory and holiness He would have little interest in His people. But Christ’s affections are taken up with all of the saints who have been made perfect. By virtue of the mystical, living union between Christ and His bride (Song of Songs 5:1; Ephesians 5) we know that when a member of the family of Christ suffers, so too does Christ (1 Peter 4:13). Christ would have to renounce His priestly office for Him to not be concerned about the sufferings of His people. More than that, Christ receives glory from His people on earth. Christ’s happiness and glory increases as His chosen ones reap the benefits of His redemptive work. When their sins are forgiven, their hearts sanctified, and their souls assured of God’s love for them, Christ sees the labor and fruit of His work and is Himself pleased—in fact, more pleased than His own children are. Therefore, by bestowing good toward His bride, Christ’s own happiness increases. In loving His church Christ actually loves Himself. The more grace He shows to the church the more glory He receives in Himself (Ephesians 5:28; John 17:13, 22-23; cf. 15:9-11).
The importance of recognizing Christ’s human affections in His heavenly ministry cannot be overstated. In Hebrews 4:15 we read that “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.” We should not understand Christ being able to sympathize with our weaknesses as something metaphorical like we do of God who sometimes speaks anthropomorphically. Christ’s affections in Hebrews 4:15 refer to His human nature and not His Godhead. What was spoken metaphorically in the Old Testament finds concrete fulfillment in the person of Christ in the New Testament. During Christ’s time on earth God brought Him into all sorts of afflictions and miseries in order to prepare His heart for His priestly ministry in glory. We often refer to Christ’s obedience as the basis for the imputation of His obedience to believers. And this is true. But, sometimes lost in that truth is another one: namely that Christ’s heart is enabled, out of personal experience, to pity those who, like Himself, are tempted and distressed. His human nature in heaven knows and remembers all that had once taken place and now takes place. Christ, as head of the body, is the “fountain of all sense and feeling in the body,” writes Goodwin. God remembers those in adversity, having been in adversity Himself, and so is compassionate toward them. Also, the word “sympathize” signifies to suffer with us until we are relieved. The question may be asked, “How far does this affection extend and how deep does it reach?” The answer: No man in this life can fathom.
To preach the glories of Christ, we must preach about Christ’s earthly and heavenly ministries. We must grasp the importance of Christ’s person and work in heaven. And we must gain a renewed appreciation of Christ’s ministry toward His people on earth—now and perpetually, until He comes again.
Perhaps there is a sense in which Christ looks upon His people with some sadness due to the fact that they fail to realize how concerned He is for them even as He sits in His heavenly glory. May our generation of preachers and teachers leave us in no doubt about the heart of Christ in heaven toward sinners on earth.
Dr. Mark Jones is the minister of Faith Vancouver (PCA) and a research associate at the University of the Free State (Bloemfontein), South Africa.