Every week at New Covenant, we confess one of the ancient creeds of the Church (i.e the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed). I especially love confessing the biblical truth that Jesus is “seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,” for the simple reason that Scripture places emphasis on this most precious truth (Psalm 110:1; Matt. 22:44; 26:64; Ephesians 1:20; Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; 12:2; 1 Peter 3:22). But what does the Scripture mean when it speaks of Jesus “sitting” at the right hand of the Majesty on High? The other question which surfaces when we come to consider this matter is that which has to do with what the Scripture means when it speaks of the risen and ascended Jesus “standing” to receive Stephen, the first New Covenant martyr, when he was dying.
In volume 3 of his Reformed Dogmatics, Geerhardus Vos gave a very carefully developed theological answer to both of these–and other related–questions when he wrote:
“64. What distinguishes sitting at the right hand of God as a stage of the exaltation from the ascension?
The ascension had a twofold significance. In part, it had an independent significance as the transition of the Mediator from the sphere of the earth into the sphere of heaven according to His human nature, and concurrent with that, the change of this nature. In part, it was preparatory for sitting at God’s right hand. The lordship and majesty associated with the latter could only be exercised in heaven. For these reasons, it is impossible to speak of the ascension and to highlight its significance without bringing in the kingdom of power with it. Nonetheless, as a distinct stage of exaltation the ascension must be sharply separated from the reception of kingdom power, and the latter reserved for sitting at the right hand.
65. How is the expression “sitting at the right hand of God” intended?
a) First, we must note that it is to be taken figuratively and not literally. It is a total misconception when Lutherans, under the appearance of excluding a local “there,” nevertheless drag it in again by saying “Dextra Dei ubique est,” “The right hand of God is everywhere.” The expression has nothing to do with what is local. Nor does it teach that Christ is ubiquitous as He is that in one particular place. One can derive the former only by deduction, and then only with regard to the deity.
b) The metaphorical speech of God, however, also has a deeper sense here than one usually thinks. It is here as little as elsewhere derived only afterward from the relationships of creaturely things but rests on an eternal reality of which created things, in their turn, are the image. There is something in God, insofar as man is the image of God; in Him is the same as ectype, and of this likeness with God there is an imprint in His material nature.
c) The right hand is the seat of power. God has willed that for man it would be the instrument of the most natural and noble exercise of power. It is extended to command, holds the scepter for rulers, is a direct reflection in man of both the might and power that God possesses.
Thus to sit at God’s right hand is for all things to be in the closest communion with His divine power and might. Whoever sits at someone’s right hand is connected with that of which the right hand is the symbol. Thus divine authority and divine power flow over, as it were, into Christ. For this significance of the right hand, one may compare passages like Isaiah 41:10, “I also support you with the right hand of my righteousness,” and 45:1, “Cyrus, whose right hand I hold.”
d) Inasmuch as the preeminence of a king lies in his power, or in general power is something excellent, so the right hand is a symbol of honor, of virtue as well, and connection with the right hand, the sign of glory and high esteem (cf. Psa 80:17, “Your hand be upon the man of your right hand”—that is, upon Him who is in great honor with you—Eccl 10:2, “The heart of the wise is toward his right hand, but the heart of a fool is toward His left hand”). The blessing communicated by the right hand is viewed as the most excellent, for which reason Joseph placed his son Manasseh at the right hand of Jacob [Gen 48:13]. The elect will be placed at the right hand of the Mediator in the day of judgment [Matt 25:34]. This is the sense to be understood when Bathsheba is set at the right hand of Solomon (1 Kgs 2:19), when the mother of the sons of Zebedee requested that her two sons might sit, the one at His right hand and the other at His left hand, in the kingdom of the Lord [Matt 20:20–21]. For Christ, there is not only authority and power but also honor. The apostle includes both when he says, “has set Him at His right hand in heaven … above every name that is named … and has subjected all things under His feet” [Eph 1:20–22]. Honor is referred to separately in Hebrews 1:3–4, “at the right hand of majesty in the highest heaven, having become so much more superior than the angels as He has inherited a more excellent name above theirs.”
e) The sitting at the right hand of God has distinctive significance. Sitting is something other than standing. Someone who serves stands in the presence of the one he serves (1 Kgs 10:8, “Blessed are these your servants who continually stand in your presence”). The angels are always presented as standing (Isa 6:2; 1 Kgs 22:19). In Hebrews 1:3, it is apparently in contrast to the standing posture of the angels that it is said of Christ, “He has sat down.” The Hebrew word for priest, כֹהֵן, is derived from standing before God to serve (Heb 10:11, “And every priest stood daily serving”). So Christ, too, stood during the bringing of His satisfaction. Now, however, He has sat, as the sign of His efficacious exercise of the priestly office and kingly rule (Zech 6:13, “And He will sit and rule on His throne”). Of the man of sin, who arrogates to himself the rights and honor of God, it is prophesied that “he will sit in the temple of God as a God, displaying himself that he is God” (2 Thess 2:4).
f) From what has just been noted, it appears that sitting at the right hand of God is not exclusively related to the kingdom of power but also indicates the point at which His glorious intercession begins. Or, expressed more accurately, it indicates that stage of exaltation in which the kingdom of power and the priestly intercession begin to interpenetrate one another. It is described prophetically from this point of view in Psalm 110. The emphasis there falls on the fact that Melchizedek was king and priest at the same time. In Israel, the two positions of dignity were separated. David, the head of his people, could not provide the gift of atonement for his people. The priest, the one atoning for the people, could not rescue Israel with kingly power. In the awareness of this imperfection, David rises prophetically to the ideal mediatorial office of his Lord, who will unite priesthood and kingship in Himself, and to whom the Lord says, “Sit at my right hand until I will have put your enemies as a footstool for your feet” [v. 1], whose scepter of strength will be sent from Zion (v. 2), at whose right hand is the Lord Himself (v. 5), who does justice among the nations [v. 6], who is priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek [v. 4].
g) The sitting, finally, also has judicial significance: Psalm 9:4, “You have sat on the throne, O Judge of righteousness”; Joel 3:12, “But there I will sit to judge all the surrounding nations” (cf. Matt 19:28).
66. What does it mean that Stephen saw Christ standing at the right hand of God [Acts 7:55–56]?
This in no way conflicts with sitting at the right hand, since this is only a figurative expression for what has just been described. We can on no account imagine the humanity of the Lord as immovable and unchangeable in one place. Standing expresses readiness to help and to protect and to receive into the eternal dwelling places: Micah 5:3, “And He will stand and shepherd the flock in the power of the Lord”; Psalm 94:16, “Who will stand for me against the evildoers?”; Genesis 19:1, “And when Lot saw them, he stood up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground.”1
1. Vos, G. (2012–2016). Reformed Dogmatics. (R. B. Gaffin, Ed., A. Godbehere, R. van Ijken, D. van der Kraan, H. Boonstra, J. Pater, A. Janssen, … K. Batteau, Trans.) (Vol. 3, pp. 235–238). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.