Sitting at the right hand of God

            This article’s aim is to explore some of the insights to be gained from the biblical teaching of Christ’s sessio (i.e., the sitting at the right hand of God) and His intercession for the saints – that is for those who put their trust in Him and follow Him in obedience. We recently have been reading F.F. Bruce’s Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free and were anew intrigued by the question “Why is Jesus interceding for us?”
            Or as the question rather arose “Is Christ still appeasing God?” In this regard the first notion which came naturally to our mind (and maybe to yours too) is that Christ needs to intercede on our behalf, because God is still ill-disposed towards us (i.e., He somehow is still angry with us) and Christ needs to “calm Him down” and make a plea for our salvation. Well, as we will discover in the remainder of this article, it is actually us who are ill-conceived of such a notion on God’s part.
            In the regard on this false understanding of Christ’s intercession for us Calvin writes “imagine not that he throws himself before his Father’s knees, and suppliantly intercedes for us” (III, ch. XX, 20) or as Swete said that Christ is not “standing before the Father with outstretched arms,…pleading our cause in the presence of a reluctant God” (H.B. Swete, The Ascend of Christ [London, 1912], p. 95 quoted in Bruce, 66; emphasis original). But what does it imply then?
            In order to explore the answer we need to take a closer look at different aspects of Christ’s ministry; i.e., the doctrines of ascension (i.e., Christ’s return to heaven), His exaltation and sessio (i.e., His being seated at God’s right hand), and His intercession on our behalf
That Jesus Christ sits at the right hand is not a picture of rest, but rule – “not of inactivity but of authority” (Packer, p. not provided). But where does this picture come from? Is it something we encounter first in the NT? Well, as the question already implies, the sessio of someone at God’s right hand is previously told of in the OT: “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool’” (Psalm 110:1). This psalm is quoted and alluded to several times in the NT (e.g. cf. Mt 26:64; Mk 14:62; Rom 8:34; 1 Cor 15:25; Eph 1:20; Col 3:1; Heb 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pet 3:22).
The epistle to the Hebrews (as seen in the list above) makes strong usage of this picture of the Messiah. Let us therefore examine this letter a little bit more. In the opening section of Hebrews we read:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, rough whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (vv. 1-3)
Three offices of Christ can be seen in the opening section of Hebrews: (1) the Son as Prophet, giving the final revelation (“he has spoken to us by his Son”), (2) the Son as Priest, who made purification for our sins; and (3) the Son as King, who sits as heir and lord at the right hand of the Majesty on high.
            Through these described offices of Christ, we can see that the doctrines of ascension, exaltation and sessio, and His intercession on our behalf are closely knit together.
            In this article we will only have space to look briefly into one passage (though the exploration of the passages cited above is strongly encouraged and would benefit the discussion); Hebr 7:23-25 says:
The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.
The author of Hebrews argument for the superiority of Christ’s person is seen in that He is better than the prophets (1:1-4), better than the angels (1:5-2:18), better due to His deity (1:5-14), better in His humanity (2:5-18), better than Moses (3:1-6), better than Aaron (4:14-7:28), that He is a fully qualified High Priest (4:14-5:10),and that He is an eternal priest (7:1-28). Further the argument of Hebrews also speaks of Christ’s superiority in His ministry: Christ has and works with a better covenant (8:1-13), a better sanctuary (9:1-12), and a better sacrifice (9:13-10:18).


            Having seen the flow of the argument of the author of Hebrews, let us return to the passage under discussion. In vv. 23-24 another superior aspect of Christ’s priesthood is found in its eternal aspect (cf. also v.16). The Levitical priests were “many in number” because they (like all human beings) were hindered by death to continue the sacerdotal office. But Christ who lives forever can also perform the priestly duty permanently.

         Verse 25 concludes and states what is flowing out of the author’s argument. Because Christ is holding the priesthood permanently, due to his eternal life, he can “save to the uttermost.” The phrase eis to panteles (“to the uttermost”) could be understood (1) qualitatively, as meaning “completely, fully, wholly,”  “to the uttermost”; or (2) temporally, “for ever” (Ellingworth, 391). Maybe both aspects are on the author’s mind. Moffatt (100) and Ellingworth (391) argue for the temporal because of the context in v. 24 (“but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever”).
            Because of this connection Ellingworth writes that “[j]ust as Christ’s priesthood is permanent, so is the salvation which he makes possible” (391). The salvation the author is writing about has to be seen more in its eschatological significance in that it talks about the eschatological inheritance (cf. 1:14; 5:9; 9:28) but also its present implications. He is able to help those being tempted (2:18; 4:14-16).
            But coming back to the initial question of this article “What does it mean that Christ is interceding on our behalf?” Does this not imply an ill disposed Father whose wrath towards us has to be calmed by the Son’s presence? St. Paul response would be “mē genoito” (“may it never be”). The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one in love and purpose (cf. Hughes, 270). Peterson writes,
The image of the heavenly intercessor is used to emphasize Christ’s willingness and ability to go on applying to us the benefits of his once-for-all sacrifice (cf.  2:18; 4:14–16; 10:19–22). However, the image should not be pushed too far. Jesus sits at the right hand of God, claiming the fulfilment of the covenant promises for his children, not begging for their acceptance before the Father’s throne! (in loc.)
This then is more a picture of Christ sitting on the Father’s right hand, ruling and securing our salvation and “claiming the fulfilment of the covenant promises for his children” to a Father “who is for us” (Rom. 8:31) and “who justifies” (Rom. 8: 33) and is pleased to grant His Son’s wishes. Christ is a “throned Priest-King, asking what He will from a Father who always hears and grants His request” (H.B. Swete, p. 95 quoted in Bruce, 66; emphasis original).
            Therefore we can draw near “with confidence…to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebr 4:16). We have a great High Priest who is sitting at the right hand of the LORD God Almighty and asking our Heavenly Father to grant the covenant promises, which our Father with love gladly lavishes on those who are His.
Bibliography
Bruce, F. F. Paul, Apostle Of The Heart Set Free. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977. Burge, Gary M. “Intercession.” In Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993. Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997. Ellingworth, P. The Epistle to the Hebrews : A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids; Carlisle England: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1993. Hughes, Philip Edgcumbe. A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1977. Larkin, W. J. Jr. “Ascension.” In Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments. Edited by Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids. electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000. Maile, John F., “Exaltation and Enthronement.” In Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993. Moffatt, James. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Edinburgh: Clark, 1948. Packer, J. I. Concise Theology : A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs. Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1995. Peterson, David. “Hebrews.” New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, 4th ed. Ed. D. A. Carson, et al., Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.

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