Sunday, February 14, 2021

Christus Resurrexit! (Sermon 5B on the Apostles' Creed)

“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell.” Thus far have we gotten in the Apostles' Creed up 'til now. We left off with Jesus' body wrapped up and laid to rest on a bench inside an expensive and previously unused tomb – courtesy of a wealthy donor – in an orchard not terribly far from Calvary. The tomb had been sealed with a round stone slab rolled down a slanted groove, coming to rest at the bottom to cover the small entryway, then sealed to keep out animals and grave-robbers. Meanwhile, we left off with Jesus' soul descending into Sheol, the underworld or realm of the dead, where he announced good news to the dead, cornered Satan and Death on their home turf, vanquished and bound them, and plundered both the keys to death's gates and the souls of the righteous. That's where we left things. But Jesus' body and Jesus' soul are separated from each other. That can't be allowed to stand. We need the line that comes next: “On the third day, he rose again from the dead!”

You see, it had long been foretold that death would not be the end of a united Jesus' story. The true Servant of the LORD who was prophesied to be “pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5) was to be “cut off from the land of the living” (Isaiah 53:8) and be buried (Isaiah 53:9). And yet it's after his suffering and after his death and after his burial that Isaiah 53 narrates that “he shall prolong his days” (Isaiah 53:10) and “shall divide the spoil with the strong” (Isaiah 53:12). This figure described by Isaiah would take up Israel's words voiced by Micah: “Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise!” (Micah 7:8). He would sum up Israel's hope told by Hosea: “The LORD... has struck us down, and he will bind us up; after two days, he will revive us; on the third day, he will raise us up, that we may live before him” (Hosea 6:1-2). The psalmist spoke for him in thanking God, “My flesh also dwells secure, for you will not abandon my soul to Sheol or let your Holy One see corruption; you make known to me the path of life” (Psalm 16:9-11; cf. Acts 2:27). Jesus himself, knowing these prophecies, had foretold, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise” (Mark 9:31). And Jesus was not wrong! “God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it wasn't possible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:24)! Now, Hannah's ancient praise had come fully true: “The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up” (1 Samuel 2:6; cf. Deuteronomy 32:39). Just as Israel had been described by Jeremiah as the “firstfruits” of God's harvest from the earth (Jeremiah 2:3), so it made sense for Israel's Messiah to be the “firstfruits” of God's harvest from the underworld (1 Corinthians 15:20). And so we read that “God the Father... raised him from the dead” (Galatians 1:1), but also that Jesus himself said, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again... I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:17-18), because this resurrection is an act of the whole God, the whole Trinity.

So picture the scene. It's been between thirty-six and thirty-nine hours since Jesus stopped his heart on the cross and allowed himself to die and permitted a separation between his human body and his human soul. The soul descended to the underworld, the body was sealed in the tomb. So it was throughout the sabbath. Now Sunday is coming. There's no light at all in the tomb. The heavy stone stops up the way. A contingent of guards stands outside to prevent external meddling with the body. That body is cold. There's no warmth to it. Everything in the tomb is still – the stillness of death. The body is wrapped in linen. Invisibly, angels keep their own anxious watch. They watch with expectation. This dead body is still united to God. It seems like a sick joke upon the universe, that God should be tied to a corpse, even a corpse preserved from the processes of decay. But then, invisibly, Another enters the space of the tomb. The angel observers see, somehow, a soul rising up from Sheol – and this soul, too, is united to God, is fused to the Word that spoke them into being. The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit all take action. The soul once more forms the body, gives it shape and activity and life. In that dormant brain, one neuron fires. In an instant, the brain sizzles with activity. The temperature of that cold skin skyrockets with irrepressible energy. The closed eyes flutter open. The lungs take in air. Motion begins. Scarred feet swing over the bench, touch the earth, stand firm. Body and soul are no longer severed in death. Divine glory and human vitality surge together. The Savior of the world is alive! Clothing himself – we know not how or with what – Jesus carefully folds the cloth that had, just moments earlier, covered his inert head, and he sets it on the bench. Whether the angels roll the stone away for his departure or do it only later to evidence the empty chamber to the world, I don't know. But in moments, with the sky still dark, the Lord has vacated the tomb. Death is done for.

As Jesus leaves the tomb, however he leaves and wherever he goes, his body is in some ways the same. It still retains some of its old qualities. When in ordinary space, it's visible and tangible (1 John 1:1; Luke 24:39). It can be touched, poked, prodded. It can be seen, heard, smelled. It's capable of ingesting thiswordly food and drink (Luke 24:41-43; Acts 10:41). It even retains the holes made by nails in his wrists and ankles, by the spear that pierced his side and punctured his heart, and presumably those made by the crown of thorns around his brow and maybe the whip marks on his back (Luke 24:40; John 20:27). And yet his body is in some ways not the same. It operates by unfamiliar physics. It's a heavenly body, belonging to God's new world (1 Corinthians 15:47-49). It's been raised imperishable, glorious, powerful, and fueled by God's own Spirit (1 Corinthians 15:42-44). It's capable of accessing locked rooms (John 20:19, 26). It's immortal and indestructible, and if the wounds bleed anything, it's infinite glory and blessing! And that is very different. This body is beyond need, beyond vulnerability, beyond the world we know. Impassibility, subtlety, agility, clarity – he's got it.

While belonging to another world, the risen Jesus continued to move in the world we do know. And that world, at that time, contained people who were deeply traumatized and scandalized in the wake of his crucifixion. They didn't know what to believe. Their hopes were crushed. It was as if their hearts had been ripped from their chests. They felt ashamed for having invested years in a failed mission, for having gone on record as associates of a false messiah, a mere pretender. They were terrified that they'd soon share his fate, not only being exposed and dying but perhaps even dying under God's curse. They clung to each other because they didn't know where else to turn. Who else would understand? But where to go next, what to do now – that was a mystery.

But then, early Sunday morning, at the break of dawn, a group of at least five female followers – including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, Joanna, Salome, and another unnamed woman (Mark 16:1; Luke 24:10) – went to approach the tomb, intending to anoint the body in a mournful funeral rite. But by dawn's early light, they find that the stone has been rolled away (Luke 24:1-3). An intimidating stranger tells them a story about rising and a disappearance (Luke 24:4-7). The women flee, relaying their experiences to the remainder of the Twelve, who largely think the women are hysterical (Luke 24:8-9). But Peter and John go to investigate. John peers in and sees the abandoned grave clothes. Peter bows himself down and enters the tomb. Then John follows him, sees the fuller picture, begins to believe.

Then the appearances begin. At least Mary Magdalene and one of the other women actually see and speak with Jesus (Matthew 28:9-10; cf. John 20:11-18). They cling to his feet, worshipping him. Jesus has to tell Mary not to cling too tightly, because there's more to be done. They go to the Twelve, and Mary declares, “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18). After hers, the next recorded appearance that day is to Simon Peter, whose nickname in Aramaic was 'Cephas.' Paul tells us that 'Cephas' was an early individual witness (1 Corinthians 15:5a), and one of the earliest reports from the disciples was that “the Lord has risen indeed and has appeared to Simon” (Luke 24:34). Where Peter was, or what was said, we can only assume to have been a moment of forgiveness. That afternoon, Jesus appears again to two disciples leaving Jerusalem on the road to Emmaus. One of them is Cleopas, whom early tradition suggests was the brother of Joseph. Jesus spends hours with them, teaching and explaining, before finally breaking bread, being recognized, and disappearing in a flash (Luke 24:13-32).

That was suppertime on Sunday night. The pair, forgoing food, immediately hit the road again, hustling their tired feet back to Jerusalem in search of the other disciples. They arrive late Sunday night or early Monday morning, discovering ten of the members of the group known as the Twelve – one, Thomas, being absent elsewhere, and another, Judas, being deceased – along with other followers of Jesus, probably including his mother Mary since she had nowhere to be but with John now (cf. John 19:27). They were in the same Upper Room where the Twelve had eaten a meal with Jesus just three days before. The two from Emmaus must have arrived to find the Twelve talking about Peter's recent experiences. And then, out of seemingly nowhere, Jesus appeared in the room, and the members of the Twelve along with the others saw him (1 Corinthians 15:5b; Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-23). They were stunned, unsure what to think, wondering if it was a ghost or a shadow or a phantom – but he proved his physical reality to them, and began to teach.

A week went by. The disciples stayed in Jerusalem for the full celebration of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which extended a week beyond Passover and closed with another “solemn assembly” (Deuteronomy 16:8; cf. Exodus 12:14-20). They either remained in Jerusalem a couple extra days beyond it, or began their journey back to Galilee, which would be about a five-day walk. But either in Jerusalem or along the way, Thomas had rejoined the group, but – having seen nothing personally – refused to get his hopes up the way the rest had (John 20:24-25). Eight days after Easter, in a locked room, Jesus again appeared to the Twelve, this time with Thomas included, and removed all doubt – and Thomas recognized him as Lord and God (John 20:26-29).

After Jesus withdrew, the disciples made or continued their journey back to Galilee, where they had been given an appointment to keep to meet Jesus there for a more extended and in-depth visit (Mark 16:7). After finishing the five-day journey, but before the appointed time, Peter decided he wanted to get some fishing in on the Sea of Galilee, and six other disciples – including some of the non-fishermen, like Thomas and Nathanael – joined in. After a night without a catch, that morning they heard a voice call out from someone standing on the shore, from which they were about the length of a football field away. Following his advice, they caught a massive number of fish, John realized it was Jesus, and Peter lunged into the lake and swam to shore while the others rowed behind him – only to find that the risen Lord was cooking them breakfast (John 21:1-14).

Then, at the appointed place in Galilee, Jesus appeared yet again – and not just to the Twelve, not just to those who followed him closely, but to a crowd of over five hundred people (1 Corinthians 15:6; cf. perhaps Matthew 28:16-17). It makes sense: in an open land where thousands could come be fed by the lakeside, it would not have been hard for hundreds to show up to see Jesus, especially if news had scarcely started to reach Galilee that he'd been executed in the first place. Jesus moved among the crowd, showed himself to them, talked with them. And we also hear, after that, of a more one-on-one appearance that Jesus gave to James (1 Corinthians 15:7a), who was known as his brother, a member of his household of earthly origin. James, so far as we can tell, was not a follower of Jesus, nor were other members of the family. Perhaps Mary, returning to Galilee, had told him what happened, but did he believe her? And did Jesus appear to James in Nazareth, at the family home – or was it somewhere else? The Gospels don't tell us the story of how it happened, but an early tradition, which may not be reliable but which is worth mentioning, suggests that James, horrified by Jesus' crucifixion, had begun fasting, vowing not to eat again now that his brother was dead; but then the risen Jesus approached him, broke some bread, and handed it to him while saying, “Brother, eat your bread, for the Son of Man is risen from among those who sleep!”1

Finally, Paul explains that after the appearance to James, Jesus was seen by “all the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:7b). He's not just repeating himself from the Twelve again. This is a bigger group. Earlier, during the years of his ministry, Jesus had commissioned an even bigger group of seventy or seventy-two followers to go and do missionary work in Galilee to prepare the way for him (Luke 10:1). He called them to extend words of peace (Luke 10:5-6), receive simple hospitality (Luke 10:7-8), announce the arrival of the kingdom of God (Luke 10:9b-11), and to demonstrate it by healing the sick (Luke 10:9a) and casting out demons (Luke 10:17-20). It would make sense to describe that whole group of 70 or 72 commissioned missionaries as “all the apostles.” They, too, saw the risen Jesus – as, eventually, would an opposing Pharisee named Saul (1 Corinthians 15:8). As Peter says to the crowds, “This Jesus God raised up – and of that, we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:32).

Can we believe their testimony? Can we believe this really happened? Yes! We've already learned why we can confidently believe that God exists. And with that background, other explanations just don't hold up. Think of the core facts that no credible historian can deny. First, Jesus was a traveling teacher in first-century Galilee and Judea whose ministry included actions that his contemporaries understood to be miraculous in nature. Second, during this ministry, Jesus predicted both that it would end in death and that he would then be vindicated by God. Third, Jesus really died, in public view, as a result of being crucified by the local Roman authorities. Fourth, Jesus was buried in a sealed tomb that, shortly thereafter, was discovered to be vacant, and which could not have been opened by human power from the inside. Fifth, a number of Jesus' closest followers then claimed to have seen, heard, and touched Jesus alive after discovering that his body was missing from the tomb – and it could not have been a mass hallucination, since those don't happen, least of all in multiple senses at once. Sixth, even some who were initially outside his group of followers, like James and Paul, claimed to have seen and heard Jesus alive after his death and burial. Seventh, the Gospel accounts of these appearances include details that would have been embarrassing in their society, like the unflattering portrayal of the disciples or like the initial witness by women whose testimony was devalued by law and custom. Eighth, the profundity of these experiences transformed cowardice into considerable courage, ultimately leading many of those who claimed to be eyewitnesses to choose death over recanting their testimony, highlighting their sincerity and conviction. And ninth, where other quickly-expanding religions have often had various earthly advantages like long lives for their charismatic founders, unembarrassing claims, or the assistance of government backing or a military force, Christianity had none of these in its first few centuries and yet saw impressive growth even while under pressure. I can tell you that I've surveyed the guesses that nonbelievers of many stripes have made to try to explain even a few of these facts without admitting that Jesus is risen. They don't hold up. There's only one truly good explanation – and it's that Jesus really did rise from the dead.2 The same body nailed to the cross, the same body buried dead in the tomb, then got up, walked, talked, ate, and inspired awe in eyewitnesses.

But what does it mean to believe this? What difference does it make? It first of all clarifies who God is. To pick the real God out of a lineup, you need just one description: he's the God who raised Jesus from the dead. Before everything else, he's a God of Life, a God of Resurrection. That's the kind of God the true God is. And everything we need to know about him is folded up in what we see in Jesus. Because Jesus is alive! He cannot be confined to Sheol. He cannot be locked away in a tomb. He cannot be quarantined. No, the Word-made-flesh is “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12). Jesus “lives by the power of God” (2 Corinthians 13:4), and with the power of God in his hands, he is vital and engaged. One fourth-century Christian explained that Jesus' work in the world is proof positive that he's not dead any more:

If anyone is dead, he cannot act … Since the Savior still works so many things among human beings..., would anyone still have doubt in their mind whether the resurrection has been accomplished...? … How, if he isn't acting..., does he stop those active and alive so that the adulterer no longer commits adultery, the murderer no longer murders, the unjust no longer grasps greedily, and the impious is henceforth pious? How, if he is not risen but dead, does he stop and drive out and cast down those false gods said by unbelievers to be alive and the demons they worship? For where Christ and his faith are named, there all idolatry is purged away, every deceit of demons refuted, and no demon endures the name … This is not the work of one dead, but of one alive...3

And so Jesus' resurrection powerfully declares his identity. Paul tells us that Jesus “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of Holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4). This act of God singles out Jesus as special. It vindicates everything he claimed for himself, including his claim to have God for his Father in a unique way, and to be the Divine Son. It makes it possible for Jesus to be king forever, fulfilling God's vow to David. God has raised Jesus from the dead, rewarding him for his life of humble obedience and vindicating him against the judgments of the world that rejected him. Jesus' resurrection, in vindicating Jesus, thereby confirms the whole gospel message. God was and is active in the life of Jesus. God aims through Jesus to rescue the world. God is establishing his kingdom through Jesus. And the destiny God has in mind for the world is to become like what we see already in Jesus Christ.

This sets Jesus apart from everyone else who's ever lived. Great social reformers from history died and stayed put. Mohandas Gandhi died in 1948 and was cremated, and his ashes were dumped in a river or stored in urns. Martin Luther King Jr. died in 1968 and was buried, and his body is still entombed in his national historical park in Atlanta, Georgia. Great philosophers from history died and stayed put. Aristotle died in 322 BC, he was buried somewhere in Greece, and their dust is still part of the soil. Immanuel Kant died in 1804, and his body is still in a mausoleum in Russia. Friedrich Nietzsche died in 1900, and his body is still buried at a church in eastern Germany. The resurrection sets Jesus apart from every religious leader from history. The Buddha died in the fifth century BC and was cremated, and his remaining bone fragments, hair, ashes, and teeth were spread throughout the world. Muhammad died in 632 in Arabia, and his body is still in Medina buried under the Green Dome. And this sets Jesus apart also from every political leader of history. Julius Caesar was stabbed in 44 BC, and his body was cremated on an altar east of the Roman Forum, where a temple was then built for his worship. Charlemagne died in 814 and was buried, and his body is enshrined in a cathedral at Germany's western border. Henry VIII died in 1547 and was buried, and his body is still at Windsor Castle. George Washington died in 1799 and was buried, and his body is still in a vault at Mount Vernon. Abraham Lincoln died in 1865 and was buried, and his body is still under a monument in Illinois. But dig where you will, you will not find Jesus. Jesus has become “the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent” (Colossians 1:18).

Jesus is preeminent in all respects because he is the Firstborn who conquers Death. He proves that Death does not get veto power over the universe. Death will not always win. “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again: Death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6:9). We're told, in fact, that what Jesus now has is “an indestructible life” (Hebrews 7:16). God “raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption” (Acts 13:34). As that fourth-century Christian observed, “Death having been put to death by him, what else should happen than that the body should rise and be shown as the trophy over it? Or how else could death be shown to be destroyed unless the lordly body had arisen?”4 And by proving his victory over Death, Jesus has taken away our only reason for being held in the fear of death – and that fear is frequently the motivation that drives all manner of human foolishness in our society today (Hebrews 2:15).

Paul tells us sharply that “if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17) – but since Jesus has been raised from death to life, then the key to salvation is to “believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead” (Romans 10:9). That's to bring it into the center of your will, to be committed in all your decisions to the life-giving power of Jesus' resurrection. See, as one old preacher said, a heart that thinks Jesus is still dead and buried – well, that heart is a tomb. But a heart that knows he lives and reigns, really and truly in the body – well, that heart is no more a tomb, that heart is heaven!5

For Jesus was “raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). When God vindicated Jesus, he also vindicated the existence of a new humanity in him, the renewed human nature that flows to everyone united to the risen Christ. This, in fact, was exactly what God meant in raising Jesus from the dead: that in doing so, he'd set us right by unleashing the power of a new humanity. Jesus was raised to connect us to true life, for he says, “I am the Resurrection and the Life: whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). The promise of life is for all who follow him and cleave to him (1 Corinthians 15:21-22), that through his resurrection we might be “begotten again to a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3). We aren't brought into union merely with a deceased man. We're brought into union with a Savior who is Life! And because the One Vine lives and thrives, so may the many branches that abide in this Vine!

Jesus' resurrection puts believers – those who cling to the Risen Lord as their Savior – on the winning side of the universe. The resurrection means that Death really is beaten, Hell really is beaten, Devil really is beaten, Sin and Evil really are beaten, all the worldly powers that wield death and fear as means of control are beaten, everything that opposes Jesus is beaten – he has the victory! And so standing with him is to be ultimately on the winning side of the war, no matter how any given battle unfolds. As one fifth-century Christian tells us:

Through [the resurrection of Jesus], death was abolished, corruption destroyed, passions extinguished, mutability removed, the inordinate emotions of sin consumed, the power of Satan overthrown, the urge of demons brought to nothing, and the affliction resulting from the law wiped out.6

Jesus' resurrection establishes him as “Lord... of the living” (Romans 14:9), meaning that we who are up and moving belong to him. And the resurrection is a promise that Jesus “continues forever” (Hebrews 7:24), being always available to help. He was raised from the dead to be an active deliverer (1 Thessalonians 1:10). And the “power of his resurrection” changes lives (Philippians 3:10). Just as in his death we can be made dead to sin, so in his risen life can we be made “alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11), “in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). So “present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life” (Romans 6:13).

And not only can this be true now, but Jesus' resurrection is the pattern for our future hope – that we might be conformed to what he now is, not just morally and spiritually but physically and metaphysically. “Those whom [God] foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29). “Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared, but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2). “God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power” (1 Corinthians 6:14). In him, the age-old exile comes to an end. Jesus is the first to return to the land of the living, but he promises he's the leader of a cosmic caravan to come.

And Jesus' resurrection is the pattern, not just for our personal future hope, but for the whole world's future hope – the entire universe will be conformed to what he now is. With the events of that morning, God has started a new thing that's every bit as groundbreaking as Genesis 1:1. A new creation has begun. A new creation is being built, and the risen humanity of Jesus is the cornerstone and foundation for a new universe in which everything disappointing will be made good. And as witnesses of the resurrection power that lives in the risen Christ, we have the privilege to announce to a passing world the good news that a new creation is dawning, and that faithful union with the Foundation-Stone – this Resurrection, this Life, this Savior, this Lord Jesus – is the way to get in on the ground floor of an eternal glory! For Jesus rose because Love must always be stronger than Death and all Death's lesser minions. And Love will not stop until all things willing are glorified in him.

So “awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:14)! “This is the One taken from the flock and led to slaughter, who was sacrificed in the evening and buried at night, who was not broken on the tree, who was not undone in the earth, who rose from the dead and resurrected humankind from the grave below.”7 “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life!”8 Thanks be to God for his “great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead” (Ephesians 1:19-20). Hallelujah! Glory to the risen Lord! Glory to undying Love! Amen.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Descendit ad Inferos (Sermon 5 on the Apostles' Creed)

Over the past month, we've been learning the basic building blocks of the Christian faith by taking a look at the Apostles' Creed, a summary of what Christians are supposed to believe, the core story that motivates us and empowers us. We started by proclaiming that we “believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” And we also confessed our belief in “Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.” Although his biography is without beginning, we jumped ahead to where his divine life intersected our human world by confessing that God's Son was “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” After his birth into human life through the Virgin Mary, Jesus – Israel's Messiah and the Last Adam – grew to human manhood, ministered, preached, healed, battled the darkness... but then, we say, he “suffered under Pontius Pilate,” at a given time in history. Not only that, but he “was crucified” – nailed to a cross, in the cruel Roman punishment for lowlife criminals and slaves. And there on that old rugged cross, Jesus “died,” after which, his body “was buried” in a nearby tomb, courtesy of a friendly Sanhedrin member named Joseph of Arimathea. That's what happened to his body. But there was more to Jesus to his body, wasn't there? We know what happened to Jesus' body when it came down from the cross. But what about his soul?

The Creed answers that question, too. And it might surprise us. The next line reads: “He descended into hell.” Now, when you hear that, you might be saying, “Whoa, what? Jesus went to hell?” Well, sort of – if we suspend our preconceptions of what the word 'hell' means. Jesus did not have any further suffering to do. No torture, no torment, no burning. That is not part of the story. To understand why our Creed talks about him descending into 'hell,' we need to ask the question: what happened to Old Testament folks when they died? What is the Old Testament's picture of life after death?

Because there is one, and it isn't terribly rosy. In the Old Testament, when people die, they descend into what we today might call 'the underworld,' the realm beneath. Sometimes, the ancient Israelites called it “the Pit,” or various other nicknames. But the most common word they used for it was Sheol. If you flip through the pages of your Bible, there's a good chance you'll find that Hebrew word here and there in the Old Testament: Sheol. Later, when the Old Testament got translated into Greek, the translators had to decide on an equivalent Greek word, and they went with Hades. So this pre-Christian underworld – we might call it Sheol, might call it Hades. But that's what happened to the souls of the departed.

If 'heaven' is a way of describing what's far up, 'Sheol' was their way of describing what's far down. Psalm 71 describes it as “the depths of the earth” (Psalm 71:20). One of Job's friends describes something mysterious as “higher than the heights of heaven” and “deeper than Sheol” (Job 11:18). God tells Amos that he'll capture people no matter where they hide: “If they dig into Sheol, from there shall my hand take them; if they climb up to heaven, from there I will bring them down” (Amos 9:2). So Sheol is deep, Sheol is somewhere you might imagine digging to. And when Isaiah offers King Ahaz a sign, he says, “Let it be as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven” (Isaiah 7:11). Sheol is as far from heaven as you can get. It's down, down, way down deep. And it's where everybody was to end up: “What man can live and never see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol?” (Psalm 89:48). Nobody, that's who. No mortal man, woman, or child can rescue him- or herself from Sheol's grip. In the end, it's going to pull you in. So what's it like?

Well, the Old Testament describes it as very dark. Job calls it “the land of darkness and deep shadow” (Job 10:21). Psalmists call it “the darkness” (Psalm 88:12) or “the depths of the pit, the regions deep and dark” (Psalm 88:6). To call something else dark, they might compare that thing to being “in darkness like those long dead” (Psalm 143:3) or “in darkness like the dead of long ago” (Lamentations 3:6). People who'd been dead went to a place without light, a dark place. And it's also quiet. One psalmist said that “the dead... go down into silence” (Psalm 115:17), and another described Sheol as “the land of silence” (Psalm 94:17). It's so quiet in part because not much happens there, there isn't much to do. “They have come down, they lie still” (Ezekiel 32:21). “There the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary are at rest; there the prisoners are at ease together” (Job 3:17-18). And so those confined there become weak and powerless – they might say to a new arrival, “You have become as weak as we are” (Isaiah 14:10). But the worst part is that, being so far down from heaven, there's no perception of God there. “There is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you're going,” one book warns (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Living people might pray, “Sheol does not thank you, death does not praise you, those who go down to the Pit do not hope for your faithfulness” (Isaiah 38:18). “In death, there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol, who will give you praise?” (Psalm 6:3).

In Ezekiel 32, Sheol is pictured like a giant underground tomb that everyone can share. He draws a picture in which all the armies of the great empires can be found there: “Assyria is there, and all her company, her graves all around it … Elam is there, and all her multitude around her grave; all of them slain, fallen by the sword, who went down uncircumcised into the world below, who spread their terror in the land of the living, and they bear their shame with those who go down to the Pit...” (Ezekiel 32:22, 24). And the Old Testament also gives the impression of Sheol as a kind of prison, with bars and gates. We already heard from Job about “the prisoners” there (Job 3:18). But Jonah laments, “I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever” (Jonah 2:6), while Job asks, “If I hope for Sheol as my house, if I make my bed in darkness, if I say to the Pit, 'You are my father,' and to the worm, 'My mother' or 'My sister,' where then is my hope, who will see my hope? Will it go down to the bars of Sheol?” (Job 17:13-16). Sheol is described as having bars. Sheol is also pictured as having gates. Hezekiah worries, “I am consigned to the gates of Sheol” (Isaiah 38:10). God asks Job, “Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?” (Job 38:17). And people can pray for God to “lift me up from the gates of death” (Psalm 9:13). The overall picture we get is that strong gates with bars lock up the dead souls in a dark prison, a giant underground tomb that all nations share, where things are quiet, weak, dull, and not particularly hopeful of anything beyond that.

There's a story in the Book of Numbers about people who try to challenge the authority of God's appointed leader Moses, and the leaders of that rebellion – Korah, Dathan, and Abiram – are warned that the consequence of their challenge will be that “the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol” (Numbers 16:30). And that's exactly what happens: “The ground under them split apart” (Numbers 16:31), and “they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly” (Numbers 16:33). So being sent to Sheol can definitely be a punishment. But even the righteous expected to end up in Sheol, or somewhere in the neighborhood. Jacob, fearful over the son he thinks is dead, complains, “I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning” (Genesis 37:35). After the Prophet Samuel dies, when King Saul hires a witch to summon his spirit, Samuel's spirit doesn't descend from heaven but rises up through the ground – because it's coming up from Sheol (1 Samuel 28:13-14). Even Hezekiah, a righteous king, can worry, “I am consigned to the gates of Sheol for the rest of my years” (Isaiah 38:10).

Later Jewish writings, like one author who lived around the same time as Jesus walked the earth, say that Sheol or Hades “is a common eternal home and fatherland, a common place for all, poor and kings.”1 But the emphasis is usually on the wicked, for whom Sheol is a place of “darkness, nets, and burning flame.”2 When Jesus tells his story about Lazarus and the rich man, the rich man is in a part of Sheol that has fiery torment (Luke 16:19-31). But Jewish writings become less clear about where the righteous go when they die. Some say that there are righteous and holy souls deposited in Sheol,3 but it can also be said that there's a separation between different moral grades of people, and “the souls of the righteous are separated by this bright spring of water with light upon it.”4 So when Jesus then tells his story set in Sheol, not only is there a fiery place, but distant from it is also a well-watered place in which Abraham welcomes those righteous dead (Luke 16:19-31).

Now, we've just spent quite a while sketching out what the underworld looked like in the Old Testament and the Jewish imagination. Why? Because now we have a question. When Jesus surrendered his last breath on that cross, his body and soul – though each was still united to God – became separated. We've already discussed what happened to his body: it was buried in the tomb. But where did his soul go? Did it fly up to heaven? No. The soul of Jesus went down to the realm of the dead, to Sheol. The English version of our Creed says that he “descended into hell,” but there's controversy over whether the Latin text originally said 'descendit ad inferna' (“descended to hell”) or 'descendit ad inferos' (“descended to the underworld”). So says our Creed. But can we know that our Creed is right? What does the Bible say? What does the Church say?

First of all, Paul says that Jesus “descended into the lower parts of the earth” (Ephesians 4:9). Bible scholars are still arguing what Paul means there. Some think that 'the lower parts of the earth' is just a fancy way to talk about the earth itself. But other scholars say that it's similar to the depths of the earth, and that means Sheol. The early church heard him that way: Paul is saying that Jesus descended into Sheol, into Hades. Jesus also points to the story of Jonah and says that, in imitation of Jonah, Jesus is going to spend three days “in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). Does he just mean being buried in a tomb that's lowered a few feet below ground level? Not likely. 'Heart of the earth' suggests Sheol. And, in fact, Jonah himself described himself as praying “out of the belly of Sheol” (Jonah 2:2). And then in Acts, Peter says a line where our Bibles often say that Jesus, after the cross, was in “the pangs of death,” or the agony of death (Acts 2:24)... but Peter is quoting Psalm 18:5 which in the Greek Bible spoke of the agony of Hades. And some early Christians read copies of Acts where that's exactly what Peter says: that Jesus was the sorrows or travails of being in Hades, in Sheol.5 So it sounds like Jesus, Peter, and Paul might all be saying that after the cross comes a descent of Jesus' soul into Sheol. And, in fact, other early Christians agreed. Early in the second century, one Christian poet said that after dying on the cross, Jesus “goes to the house of Adonis.”6 (What's that mean? Well, Adonis, in Greek mythology, was a figure who, as a baby, was taken to the underworld – Hades – to be raised there by its queen, and who later died a tragic death. So that poet is saying that Jesus, dying on the cross, goes to the underworld.) And that's what happened. As his body was placed in the tomb, his soul descended into Sheol.

So then the question becomes, what did Jesus do there? One of the psalmists had asked God, “Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in the place of destruction? Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?” (Psalm 88:11-12). The psalmist expected a 'no' to each of those questions. And in his time, that was true. But now Jesus has come to deliver a personal 'Yes!' to that psalmist and the others. Yes, God's steadfast love is declared in the grave! Yes, God's faithfulness is declared in the place of destruction! Yes, God's wonders are known in the darkness! Yes, God's righteousness is known in the land of forgetfulness! Why? How? Because Jesus has gone there to flip that 'no' to a 'yes'!

Peter tells us that “the gospel was preached even to those who are dead” (1 Peter 4:6). Picking up on what Peter is saying, a few decades later, a Christian poet will describe Jesus' mission in Sheol as “announcing the resurrection to the dead.”7 In the middle of the second century, some Christian writers thought there was a deleted verse from the Old Testament that was supposed to say, “The Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, remembered his dead that slept in their graves, and he descended to preach to them his salvation.”8 Later in that century, another writer said that while Jesus was dead, he “preached to those who sleep.”9 By the end of the century, another Christian writer would say that “the Lord preached the gospel to those in Hades.”10 And early in the third century, another Christian poet will depict Jesus in Sheol “announcing hope for all the holy ones”,11 while a Christian writing in Rome will say that Jesus “was reckoned among the dead, preaching the gospel to the souls of the saints.”12

I want us to picture this scene. Take every impression we've gotten from the Old Testament – that dark prison, those impenetrable gates that prevail against every attempt to resist, that feeble quiet, that wide chasm between the fire and the water. Suddenly, the dark underworld fills with light. Among the shades long dead, a light has dawned. A soul has entered, and this human soul belongs to the Eternal Word of God. The divine presence has invaded death. All those who died throughout all of human history up to this point have been wasting away, pining hopelessly... but now there's an answer. And from this bright soul that illuminates the darkness, the good news is announced. Good news that there is hope. Good news that death doesn't have the last word. Good news that there's now a force against which the gates of hell can't prevail (cf. Matthew 16:18). Good news that victory is at hand!

From a distance, the souls of pagans hear the announcement – Hammurabi and Tutankhamen, Nebuchadnezzar and Qin Shi Huang, Homer and Virgil, Aristotle and Buddha, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. They listen in awe, wonder, maybe wistful yearning. And among them are the wicked who have all met their end. Cain hears the message of one whose blood speaks a better word than Abel's. The Pharaoh of the Exodus hears the message of the one who plagued him before. Korah and Dathan and Abiram hear the message of the true priest. Goliath hears the message of the one who came against death with the sticks of the cross and won. And even Judas is there, having forsaken the hope that could have been his, had he repented – Judas listens to the message of the one he betrayed, who would have forgiven him.

But they listen from across a chasm. Others listen up close, for their God stands now in their very midst. Adam and Eve are there, hearing the good news after who knows how long. Methusaleh is there, marveling at a story much older than he. Noah is there, delighting that a new ark has been built to lift him above death's flood. Abraham and Sarah are there, overjoyed that God has supplied a full sacrifice at last. Jacob is there, with his wives and his sons, hailing the Lion of Judah to whom the scepter has finally come. Job is there, beholding his Redeemer without a whirlwind. David and Solomon are there, bowing to their Lord who came for them. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the other prophets listen attentively as all they glimpsed is laid bare. For Jesus has come with a message of great hope and good news into the midst of their death. And I would have to imagine that Joseph, Mary's husband – his soul was there too, wasn't it? Think of that moment, the moment Joseph's soul senses the proximity and hears the voice of Jesus, coming for him! Surely Simeon, who lived until he could cradle the infant Messiah in his arms, was there, having departed in peace from the world above. And John the Baptist was there, having gone ahead as a forerunner yet again.

Naturally, they must have all praised Jesus. After all, even those “under the earth” bow the knee and confess the Lordship of Jesus Christ (Philippians 2:10-11). And what's not to praise? Here he was, God invading death, God invading the underworld, and his proclamation – which included an explanation of what was soon to come – was a breath of fresh air and a beam of bright hope to those who had died in expectant faith that God was not done with them. This was great news for those on the right side of the chasm of faith! But what about those on the other side? Well, in the early church, some – not all, but some – suggested that maybe Jesus' postmortem preaching was indeed beneficial to dead pagans – people who hadn't died in faith, due in part to having lived in ignorance. One third-century Christian wrote that “when [Jesus] became a soul unclothed by a body, he conversed with souls unclothed by bodies, converting also those of them who were willing to accept him...”13 Can we imagine this being an opportunity for, say, the soul of Julius Caesar or the soul of Buddha to respond with faith to the gospel as presented by Jesus himself? We can't know for sure. But some, at least, held out for that very kind of possibility.

Now, by descending into Sheol to preach to the dead, Jesus did more than just that. He cornered Satan in the devil's own house. And he burgled Death, ransacking the place. Okay, that calls for some explanation. During the days of his earthly ministry, some people challenged Jesus' practice of exorcism, in which he would kick demons out of people they'd wormed their way into and infected. And Jesus, in his defense, made some very interesting remarks. He said, “If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. But no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house” (Mark 3:26-27; see also parallel in Matthew 12:29).

What is Jesus saying there? He's saying that his exorcistic ministries were a way of binding the powers of darkness, tying them up, with Satan being the ultimate strong man – and the intent was for Jesus to plunder Satan's goods, which are the people whom demons had possessed. But in the early church, this language also came to then be applied to what Jesus did on Holy Saturday, when his soul was in the underworld. In going to Sheol, he entered into the house shared by the 'strong man' Satan and the 'strong man' Death and the 'strong man' Hades. And on getting there, he bound them, tied them up, so that he could plunder the house, plunder Sheol itself, and take away their goods!

So, for instance, one of the oldest Christian hymns sings that “Sheol has been vanquished.”14 In the late first or early second century, one Christian writing described how, after dying on the cross, Jesus “descended to the angel who is in Sheol.”15 And what does it say he did there? It says that there, Jesus “plundered the angel of death.”16 So what, exactly, does Jesus take?

Well, the New Testament explicitly tells us one thing. Later on, when John has a vision of the exalted Jesus quite some time after this, Jesus says, “I died..., and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Revelation 1:18). When Jesus ransacked the underworld, he repossessed the keys to the place. And that's pretty important. But the church has long held that the main goods Jesus came to burgle from the bound strong man were souls – the souls of the righteous, the souls for whom God had better plans. Adapting words from Psalm 68, Paul had already told us that when Jesus descended, his came down there to “lead captivity captive” (Ephesians 4:8). What does that mean? Well, what appears to be an even earlier Jewish writing expresses hope that the Messiah, when he comes, will “make war against Beliar” – ('Beliar' is an Old Testament word for 'worthlessness' that later came to be applied to the devil – check out 2 Corinthians 6:15) – and it says that the Messiah “shall take from Beliar the captives, the souls of the saints, and he shall turn the hearts of the disobedient ones to the Lord and grant eternal peace to those who call upon him, and the saints shall refresh themselves in Eden, the righteous shall rejoice in the New Jerusalem, which shall be eternally for the glorification of God.”17

And the church kept up this way of thinking. One of the disciples of the apostles is said to have taught that “the Lord went down under the earth to proclaim to [the ancients] his coming, the remission of sins for those who believe in him. They all believed in him, those who set their hope in him...: the righteous and the prophets and the patriarchs. And he remitted their sins like ours...”18 In the middle of the second century, a century after Paul, a Christian writing imagines Jesus saying, “I have descended to the place of Lazarus and have preached to the righteous and to the prophets, that they may come forth with the rest below and go up to what is above...”19 A bit later, in France, a Christian leader was talking about how Jesus' “descent into Hades was salvation for the departed,”20 for he came “freeing those who follow him from Hades.”21 Around the same time, a preacher in Turkey imagined Jesus declaring, “I am he who destroys Death and triumphs over the Enemy and crushes Hades and binds the strong man and bears humanity off to the heavenly heights.”22 By the start of the third century, a Christian in Rome said Jesus went to “descend to ransom the souls of the saints from the hand of death.”23 But it was in the fourth century, just over 300 years after Jesus' burial, that a Christian in Persia imagined a dramatic confrontation between Jesus and Death himself in the underworld. Read it to believe it!

When Jesus, the Slayer of Death, came and clothed himself in a body from the seed of Adam and was crucified in his body and tasted death, and when Death perceived that he'd thereby come down to him, [Death] was shaken from his place and was agitated when he saw Jesus. And he closed his gates and wasn't willing to receive him. Then [Jesus] burst his gates and entered into him and began to despoil all his possessions. But when the dead saw light in the darkness, they lifted up their heads from the bondage of death and looked forth and saw the splendor of the King Messiah. Then the powers of the darkness of Death sat in mourning, for he was degraded from his authority. Death tasted the medicine that was deadly to him, and his hands dropped down, and he learned that the dead shall live and escape from his sway.

And when [Jesus] had afflicted Death by the despoiling of his possessions, [Death] wailed and cried aloud in bitterness and said, “Go forth from my realm and enter it not! Who then is this that comes in alive to my realm?” And while Death was crying out in terror (for he saw that his darkness was beginning to be done away, and some of the righteous who were sleeping arose to ascend with [Jesus]), then [Jesus] made known to him that when he'll come in the fullness of time, he'll bring forth all the prisoners from his power, and they'll go forth to see the light.

Then, when Jesus had fulfilled his ministry among the dead, Death sent him forth from his realm and suffered him not to remain there. And to devour him like all the dead, he counted it not pleasure. He had no power over the Holy One, nor was he given over to corruption. And when [Death] had eagerly sent him forth and [Jesus] had come forth from his realm, [Jesus] left with him, as a poison, the promise of life: that, little by little, his power should be done away. Even as when a man has taken a poison in the food given for life, when he perceives in himself that he's received poison in the food, then he casts up again from his belly the food in which the poison was mingled, but the drug leaves its power in his limbs so that, little by little, the structure of his body is dissolved and corrupted – so Jesus dead was the Annihilator of Death, for through him life is made to reign, and through him Death is abolished...24

After hearing that reflection, that holy imagination of the church, does it even make sense to ask what practical difference this line in the Creed makes – why it matters that we say that Jesus “descended into hell,” went down to the underworld, to Sheol, to Hades? But it's still our question. So let's remember a few things.

First, when we confess in the Apostles' Creed that Jesus “descended into hell,” we're confessing that the Lord Jesus Christ knows what it's like to be dead. Jesus did not just lose consciousness, and everything went dark, and then he woke up thirty-six to thirty-nine hours later. He was fully aware of what was going on. In him, a person who is God didn't merely go through the event of death, he went through the extended experience of death. He experienced it “so that, by the grace of God, he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). The person of the Word was tied to a human corpse that rested in a specific tomb in a specific geographical location outside Jerusalem's city walls, but was tied also to a human soul unclothed by body, a human ghost (as it were), that descended into Sheol. He saw the insides of Sheol. God went undercover as an inmate. He got the feel for the place and for the experience. He understands. We have a high priest who is not “unable to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15), and that includes the human weakness endured in Sheol.

Second, what we confess here matters because it means that Jesus really did square off with Satan, Death, and all their powers. And Jesus won! They exhausted themselves trying to get a hold on him. They've got no more ferocity left. They're drained, they're sapped, they're toast. Jesus made mincemeat out of 'em! He stripped them and embarrassed them on their home turf, for all their shadowy cheerleaders to see. There's nowhere that a truly decisive victory can be won better than on the enemy's home turf. It was one thing for the Allied forces to fight the Nazis in occupied France; it was a whole different thing for the Allied forces to do it in the streets of Berlin. Just the same, it's one thing for Jesus to fight Satan in the occupied wilderness; it's a whole different thing for him to invade Satan's house and to fight with Death in the heart of Sheol. Jesus put the darkness to shame. The darkness doesn't like it. But the darkness can't do a thing about it. And there, Jesus poisoned Death and Hades, poisoned them with the promise of his victory, poisoned them with an infection of life that will be the death of them. Death is getting weaker. Hades is getting weaker. They grow weaker all the time.

And that underscores why, as a third point, Jesus is so important, why he's the touchstone, why he's the fault line. When we confess this line in our Creed, we're unveiling a profound truth: all who will not cling to Christ are clinging instead to Death (and to a beaten Death, for that matter!). All who will not hear and receive the word of Christ will instead remain in Death's thrall, listening to Death's disheartening whispers. That's really what we're seeing played out on Sheol's stage in this scene. What people refuse Christ, all that they can be left with is an uneasy negotiation with the nefarious powers that threaten the world but are ultimately doomed to oblivion. Isaiah pictures Christ-refusers as saying, “We have made a covenant with Death, and with Sheol we have an agreement: when the overwhelming whip passes through, it will not come to us, for we have made lies our refuge, and in falsehood we have taken shelter” (Isaiah 28:15). And there is only one alternative to doing that. There is only one alternative to living on the earth and dwelling beneath the earth seeking refuge in lies. And that alternative is found in the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). He is the only sure foundation, the only cornerstone laid by the Father in Zion, so that whoever trusts in him and clings to him and stands on him will endure the overwhelming whip (Isaiah 28:16). To refuse Jesus is to cling to Death. And the only alternative to clinging to Death is clinging to Jesus Christ, the Light who invades Death's darkness.

Fourth, to confess this line in our Creed is to say that Jesus has changed what it means to die. Those who die in the Lord now are blessed (Revelation 14:13). Abraham is not below! Moses is not below! David is not below! Isaiah and Jeremiah are not below! And neither must you be. That realm of doom and gloom is no more the destination for those who die in the Lord. When you die, your body may go down to the earth, but your soul has no need for that direction. Paradise has a new address, a higher one. We can forward our mail upward now. To die in Christ is to have a different expectation than anyone who died during the era of the old covenant. To die in Christ is to have a hope to “depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23), “for we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1). Adam and Eve couldn't say that when they died. Abraham couldn't say that when he died. Moses, Aaron, and Miriam couldn't say that when they died. But now they can! Now they have a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. And so can we. In Christ, we have the privilege of saying, with the psalmists who anciently hoped for better things, “God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me” (Psalm 49:15). “You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory” (Psalm 73:24)!

Fifth, to confess this line in our Creed is to believe that Jesus really does have those keys in hand – the keys of Death and Hades, the keys to the underworld. Death has no more authority to dictate to Jesus the fate of any one of us. Death doesn't even have the key to his own house any more! Jesus didn't just make a duplicate, he repossessed the master! Jesus, right this instant, has authority to raise the dead. One turn of the key, and Sheol is emptied, heaven is emptied, and the graveyards start getting lively. And Jesus, right this instant, has authority to make you immortal. One turn of the key, and nothing can separate your soul and body. And get this: the one who has that authority, the one who holds those keys, loves you! He loves you, and he's out to pursue your best interest, within his broader vision of life and glory to the world! Whenever he allows one of our loved ones to stay put in death, it's because he has a purpose in mind that's for the good. Whenever he lets a moment go by in which you are vulnerable, it's because he has a purpose in mind that's for the good. All these things are signs of his mercy we just don't understand yet. But he has the keys. And he wields them with you and me in mind!

And finally, to confess this line in our Creed is to know that the deceased are not hidden or obscured from the Lord's sight. Ancient Israel was told in the Law to have a special place in their heart for strangers and to treat them equally, since Israel should remember what it was like to be a stranger when they lived in Egypt (Leviticus 19:33-34). In much the same way, Jesus has a special place in his heart for the deceased, for their severed souls and bodies, precisely because he remembers what it was like to be a separated soul and a separated body. Jesus remembers the dead. He marks them all by name. He knows their stories. He identifies with their situation. Whenever we grieve over the demise of a loved one, we can know, from this confession, that they are not exceptions from Jesus' rule of love. He has his eye on them. He can relate to them, even in their experience of what comes after a final breath. And in that, we can take great hope and joy in the midst of every parting grief!

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Crucified, Died, Buried (Sermon 4 on the Apostles' Creed)

Here we come to the real crux of the matter, if you'll pardon the pun. In the last three weeks, as we've looked at the opening words of the Apostles' Creed, we confessed that we “believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary...” But then what happened? The Creed doesn't say anything about the majority of Jesus' life on earth. That wasn't a customary part of the Church's Rule of Faith. It didn't make the highlight reel. But that isn't to say it's unimportant. Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago. A visit from foreign stargazers frightened the paranoid old king Herod into giving an order to exterminate the babies in that town. Forewarned in a dream, Joseph took Mary, the baby Jesus, and the gold, frankincense, and myrrh they'd been given, and sought refuge in Egypt for a few months until Herod had died. Making their way back to the land, it wasn't at first clear which version of Herod's will had left which of his sons in charge where; but finding the answer, Joseph resettled the family back to Nazareth in Galilee. There they raised Jesus, there he was apprenticed to his father Joseph as a carpenter, until Joseph eventually died.

In his early thirties, Jesus traveled to where his relative John was re-enacting the entry into the Promised Land by dipping people into the Jordan River for cleansing and a new start. Jesus went through the ritual to identify himself with Israel, and then went immediately into the desert to fast and pray, which he capped off by facing down Satan the Tempter and coming away clean. Recharged, Jesus returned to Galilee, where for the next three years or so, he carried out an itinerant teaching career. Establishing himself as a teacher, he began to attract hearers and followers. As he did, he handpicked twelve men to be his personal students, who'd go everywhere he went, live with him, stick by his side, and be his proteges. Why twelve? To start Israel afresh, you'd need to reboot the twelve tribes. These students would be patriarchs of a New Israel, with Jesus as the God who called them and was giving them a fresh New Law. From the start, Jesus proclaimed the necessity of repentance, since the kingdom of God was being restored to the earth. As he went, his pithy stories, extended speeches, and cryptic sayings unpacked the nature of that kingdom, while he demonstrated its approach by curing diseases with his touch, casting out demons with his word, and commanded the powers of nature to obedience as no mundane teacher could. And so he was recognized by many as the long-awaited Messiah, and was hated by many others as a threat to their own agendas for Israel and for humanity. Increasingly, approaching three years into his announcements, he begin hinting to his students that the true mission of the Messiah, as Israel's king and humanity's head, was to step forward into the whirlwind of tribulation at the world's end and draw it down onto himself, drinking down the chalice of divine wrath against all human hate, and weathering the catastrophe himself by being hated, scorned, outcast, judged, abused, degraded, and destroyed.

And so we come to the next article of the Apostles' Creed. Not only do we confess our belief in this Jesus, that he is who he says he is, but that those final warnings were right: he “suffered under Pontius Pilate,” who at that time was the Roman prefect or procurator of Judea, the Roman province south of Galilee – a man notorious for his thuggish massacres and his insensitivity to Jewish scruples. We say that we believe in the Jesus “who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried...” Those who say the Nicene Creed say the same thing: “For our sake, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.” So what are we saying?

Jesus spent March of that year leading his disciples into Judea, where his substantial group of followers mingled with a pilgrim parade streaming through Jericho to Jerusalem to celebrate there the upcoming Feast of Passover, a commemoration of God's ancient salvation of Israel from Egypt. But once Jesus had arrived in the suburbs of Jerusalem, coming in and out of the city as he and they prepared for Passover, a plot was set in motion by an alliance of those who hated him. One Thursday night in the first week of April, Jesus ate supper with his students, who were also his closest friends, when one of them slipped away from the table. Jesus led this core group across a brook, while they sang a hymn, and into an olive grove called Gethsemane where they frequently retreated to pray when they were in the area. There, Jesus wrestled with the immensity of what was to come. Late into the night, the missing disciple returned as a traitor, leading temple guards to apprehend Jesus. He was treated to a sham trial overnight in the high priest's residence, and at dawn, the Jewish ruling council, called the Sanhedrin, had issued its official decision of guilt. Within hours, they hauled Jesus to the praetorium, the official residence of the governor, where in the outside courtyard, representatives of the Sanhedrin denounced Jesus to that governor, Pontius Pilate.

Pilate's instincts were to acquit, seeing nothing in Roman law that would classify the conduct of Jesus as a criminal offense. He attempted to offload the problem onto Herod Antipas, tetrarch in charge of Galilee, who was visiting Jerusalem for the Passover; but Antipas returned the favor. Pilate proposed a non-capital form of punishment, having Jesus flogged or scourged with a harsh whip and allowing his soldiers to make sport of the would-be king of the Jews by mock-crowning him with thorns and mock-robing him in purple while spitting on him and striking him. The process was brutal, leaving Jesus bloody, raw, and quite sore – and this sort of torture was often a prelude to execution, though sometimes they used burning or branding with hot metal instead. Then Pilate presented the beaten Jesus in front of the crowd, offering to release him as a gesture of goodwill; instead, they chanted for the release of a bandit-chief and terrorist named Barabbas who'd been captured with his two accomplices, and called for Rome's cruelest punishment to be enacted on Jesus: crucifixion.

Crucifixion, suspension from a cross to which one was attached by ropes or nails, was a nasty way to die. It had everything you didn't want in a death. It was meant to be as painful as possible. It was meant to be humiliating in the extreme, rendering its victim powerless. And it was meant to be extremely drawn out, sometimes lasting for days. Many thought of it as the worst way to go. One Roman writer called it “a cruel and terrifying penalty.” Romans commonly saved it for slaves, foreigners, bandits, and the most serious offenders like temple thieves, military deserters, and terrorists. It comes as no surprise to know that Roman slaves, when they wanted to cuss each other out, would yell, “Oh, go to the evil cross! Get yourself crucified!”

Seeing the determination of the crowd, Pilate – against all righteousness, and against his own better judgment – caved to their pressure. He formally pronounced Jesus guilty of sedition, issuing a death sentence shortly after noon, and approving the employment of crucifixion. Then he handed Jesus and the two other death-row prisoners over to the soldiers. Subjected to more mockery and abuse from the soldiers before they even got out of the praetorium, Jesus – remaining resolutely speechless against these outrages – was paraded through the streets of Jerusalem, carrying the crossbeam, the horizontal bar to which he'd be nailed, himself. Only, thanks to the severe treatment he'd already received, his body had been weakened to the point he couldn't get it all the way, and so a bystander from Libya was enlisted to carry it for him. Then, outside the city walls, they reached a hill nicknamed 'the Skull' – 'Calvary' in Latin, 'Golgotha' in Aramaic. It was the customary site the Romans had been using for public executions, offering splendid visibility so that large crowds could see the victims of crucifixion – that was, after all, the whole point when making an example of somebody.

Upon arriving, Jesus was stripped of all his clothes and property except for a loincloth. Nailing his hands or wrists to the crossbeam, the soldiers in charge of the execution under a centurion's direction hoisted it and him to the pole, the middle one, which was already standing. Attaching the pieces, they hammered nails through his feet or ankles, while he – curiously, they must have thought – prayed out loud for his Father to forgive them. And soon he was suspended from the cross, and to the top of the pole they nailed a placard announcing that his crime was to be king of the Jews. It certainly made him stand out from the bandits being crucified on either side of him. Not all crucifixions were especially bloody, but the severe scourging and the amount of tissue damage Jesus' body had already sustained ensured that his was going to be.

After being suspended from that cross around noon that Friday in early April, the next few hours continued to confront Jesus with hostility. The priests, scribes, and elders came to gloat over him in words that hearkened back to the temptations he'd faced in the desert. The crowds in general shook their heads dismissively. In this crucifixion that united the judgment of authorities in both Jewish and Gentile worlds, Jesus had effectively been exiled from the human race, treated as subhuman, reduced to an object or a beast. He enjoyed no consolation in his soul, but entered into the experience of absence, abandonment, and loss. Within himself, he tasted all the woes and pains of that final apocalyptic tribulation. Darkness filled the sky. Jesus began to issue his final words, issuing a messianic pardon to the newfound faith of one of the bandits, placing his mother into the care of one of his disciples, asking for and receiving a final sip of sour wine from a sponge held up to his lips, and quoting passages from the Psalms. With the word of God on his lips, the Word made flesh lifted up his weary lungs, shouted his trust in God his Father – and stopped his heart. Where many crucifixions could drag out for days, Jesus had consumed the heady wine of God's wrath in only three hours. His work had been completed. His lungs ceased to draw air, his brain went quiet, all the cells in his body ceased to function. He – the Word of creation, the Divine Son, the rightful Lord of the universe – hung dead from that cross. God had been executed.

As nightfall drew near, which would begin the Jewish sabbath and holy day, Jewish scruples demanded that no crucifixion victim be left exposed, since that would desecrate the land. So instead of leaving the slow agony to do its work, the soldiers broke the legs of the two still-living victims, depriving them of the ability to support themselves and draw breath. Finding Jesus shockingly dead so early, they verified his condition by thrusting a spear through the ribs of his side, puncturing his fluid-filled pericardium and heart, and saw the telltale sign of water and blood. An appeal to Pontius Pilate by Joseph, a dissenting Sanhedrin member, allowed him to not only take down Jesus' body. Wrapping it in a linen shroud with myrrh and aloe, Joseph and his colleague Nicodemus brought the body to Joseph's own recently purchased tomb in a garden near Golgotha, a tomb that had only lately been hewn and never yet used. Jesus had suffered. Jesus had been crucified. Jesus had died. And now Jesus had been buried. His lifeless body, deprived of soul, remained united to the Eternal Word – and so did his soul, which descended into the realm of the dead, the underworld. Corpse, ghost, divinity. Finished.

Did these things really happen? The details, of course, are witnessed to us by four first-century biographies – we know them as the Gospels. The early church in its common witness handed on the tradition “that Christ died in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Paul of Tarsus, writing twenty years after the event, mentioned “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14) and said that “we proclaim Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23). Peter, one of those original core students who ran away that day, himself wrote about “the sufferings of Christ” which he endured when his body was “on the tree,” that is, the wooden cross, when Jesus was “put to death in the flesh” (1 Peter 1:11; 2:24; 3:18). Around the year 73, so maybe forty years or so after the event, a pagan philosopher from Syria named Mara bar Serapion, taken into exile, wrote to his son and asked, “What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that their kingdom was abolished.” Twenty years later, a Jewish historian and Pharisee named Joseph ben Matthew remembered that “upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him” – Jesus – “to a cross.” And about twenty-three years after that, even the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus recorded that “Christ... suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate.” Yes, Jesus really suffered. He really was crucified on the orders of Pontius Pilate, a known public figure in Roman provincial government. Jesus really died. And then he really was buried.

This message was scandalous. To say that a crucified man was your hero? To worship a crucified man as your god? Paul tells us that the message of a crucified Lord was “foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). It was absurd, ludicrous. We have record, in the next few centuries, that a priestess of the Greek god Apollo, who ran an oracle purporting to give the god's own words, slandered Jesus as “a god dead in his delusions, who was destroyed by judges who decided correctly, and in public the worst death, bound with iron, killed him.” And, of course, the message of a crucified Lord was “a stumbling block to Jews,” Paul adds (1 Corinthians 1:23). They saw crucifixion as the type of thing Deuteronomy was talking about, when it says that any criminal executed by being “hanged on a tree” is “cursed by God” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). And so Jewish critics scoffed at the thought of a Messiah who had “died shamefully and dishonorably by a death that's cursed in the Law.”

And yet Paul says that “it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer” (Acts 17:3). And because it was necessary, therefore Jesus “endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2). We can understand why many, faced with opposition from Jews and Gentiles alike who found this bit distasteful, could have been tempted to soft-peddle the crucifixion – to talk about Jesus in ways that skirted around the manner of his death. That was, to outside ears, the embarrassing bit, the dirty laundry, the part to be kept quiet and admitted only reluctantly. But instead, the mainstream of the church leaned into it, refusing to minimize the cross or its scandal. Why?

Because, they said, Jesus “died for us (1 Thessalonians 5:10). Having entered into our nature, he entered also into our plight, standing where we by our guilt and stain and peril do stand. He had come to restart humanity, to make it a humanity marked not by a defiant rebel spirit but by humble obedience. And how better to do that, how better to perfect a life of humble obedience, than by carrying it to the extreme, submitting to the utmost degradation and loss of status – doing, in obedience, the very thing most contrary to your dignity? And so Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8).

For in stepping forward into the tribulation, Jesus was able to square off against none other than Satan, the heart of darkness. In some way, by dying on the cross, Jesus gained a victory over him and over all who stood with him, exposing them as not only guilty but powerless. The goal was “that through death, he might destroy the one who has the power of death – that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14). And so Jesus “disarmed the powers and principalities and put them to open shame by triumphing over them” at the cross (Colossians 2:15). He baited the darkness, he baited the powers and principalities, he baited Satan himself, into unleashing everything they had on him. And he proved that it wasn't enough to compromise him, break him, or cancel him. He cornered them, he unmasked them, he mortally wounded the darkness. How does that help us? By destroying the devil, Jesus' death will “deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:15).

Not only does the death of Jesus win a combat over the devil and over the darkness, but it allows Jesus to act as our scapegoat and obtain a pardon. One of the rituals of Israel's faith involved a scapegoat – a goat onto whom the sins of all Israel were transferred. The high priest would lay his hands on the goat's head and “confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins” (Leviticus 16:21). And the goat was then used effectively as a package to return those iniquities, transgressions, and sins to their sender: the goat was dismissed into the wilderness each year on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:10), to “bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area,” carrying the guilt away from the community (Leviticus 16:22). And Jesus acted as that scapegoat for the world, carrying our sins into the wilderness of his tomb, that he might deposit and lock them there, far away from us. As his Father's faithful servant, he accepted the responsibility to “bear [our] iniquities” and transgressions and sins, which were laid upon his head (Isaiah 53:11). And then he “blotted out the handwriting against us in the decrees adverse to us, and he has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). And so “our old self was crucified with him, in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing” (Romans 6:6). Our sins were “buried therefore with him by baptism into death” (Romans 6:4), and so “we have now been justified by his blood” (Romans 5:9), receiving pardon.

And his death also accomplishes ransom and redemption. If some property or person had been lost due to debt, it would be confiscated and would have to be redeemed. If someone were taken prisoner in war, they would need to be ransomed. Both those things were costly. But the death of Jesus amounts to the purchase price for our ransom from captivity and our redemption from the slave-market. Jesus himself said his purpose was “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He “gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:6). By shedding his blood, by draining out his life, Jesus “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). “In him we have redemption through his blood” (Ephesians 1:7). “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law” (Galatians 3:13) and “gave himself to redeem us from all lawlessness” (Titus 2:14).

But it goes even deeper than that. “Christ loved and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). But what kind of sacrifice? And what does that do? For starters, he was a sacrifice like the lamb was sacrificed at Passover: “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7). The Passover lamb's original function was that, in being slaughtered, it provided blood that could be used by the Israelites in Egypt for an important purpose. “They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it” (Exodus 12:8). “The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:13). This prevented the angel of death from entering their homes to do them harm in the final plague (Exodus 12:23). And so to call Christ our Passover lamb is to say that his blood wards off the destroyer, the forces of death that afflict not only the body but also the soul. Jesus died so that his blood might provide the same sort of protection over the house where the New Passover is eaten – and, as we'll learn more in a few weeks, the church is that spiritual house.

What's more, Jesus' death acted as a sin-offering. For we read that Jesus “offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins” (Hebrews 10:12) – so not only a sin-offering, but the ultimate sin-offering, the last one ever needed or accepted. Sacrifices like this could be thought of as a tribute payment to God: we did wrong, we broke his law, we incurred a debt, and so to make up for it, we're asking him to accept this gift, this present, as sort of the tax penalty on our lives, if you will. And Jesus' death was that, too. Acting on behalf of humanity as a human high priest, he offered this sacrifice for sins – in light of all the law-breaking that we've done and all the debt that we incur, he gives the Father this immense gift as tribute, glorifying God to a greater degree than all the dishonor his creation has shown him. As sacrifice, Jesus' life can be made a tribute payment; as human high priest, Jesus can present this sacrifice on our behalf; and as God, Jesus' life has limitless value. The Father receives in him an infinitely worthwhile tribute from the human race, enough to settle everything.

But this sacrifice also accomplishes purification. That was one of the functions of sacrifice. During the regular routine of sacrifices in the tabernacle and temple, these things functioned like a filter for Israel's sins, catching them. But filters need cleaned, washed, purified, purged. And so these sacrifices would allow for some of the blood to be sprinkled on Israel's houses (Leviticus 14:51) and onto the side of the altar (Leviticus 5:9), and even – once a year – onto the mercy-seat, the lid of the Ark of the Covenant (Leviticus 16:11-19). The blood acted like a ritual and spiritual solvent. Or so it was meant to. In practice, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). But Jesus became our new mercy-seat (Romans 3:25) and “put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26). And so “the blood of Jesus... cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7), and “the blood of Christ [will] purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:14). Jesus' blood is the truly effective spiritual solvent that gets stains out of souls and out of the world. His sacrifice unleashes the one treatment that purges us and makes us clean (Psalm 51:7).

And not only that, but some sacrifices had as their purpose the establishment of a covenant. It was after Noah had provided burnt offerings on an altar that God established a covenant with him (Genesis 8:20; 9:9). It was after Abram had slaughtered five animals in sacrifice that God first established a covenant with him (Genesis 15:9-10). And to confirm the covenant between God and Israel, oxen were given as burnt-offerings and peace-offerings, “and Moses took half the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar... and Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, 'Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words'” (Exodus 24:5-8). These were sacrifices to establish a covenant, a kind of structured and committed relationship with God – and it was built on the 'blood of the covenant,' sacrificial blood. And we should hear an echo of Moses' covenant-founding words when Jesus talks to his disciples, less than 24 hours before the crucifixion, about my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26). And so Jesus, by this sacrifice, becomes “the mediator of a new covenant” (Hebrews 12:24), and “the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6). With this new and everlasting covenant founded on Jesus' sacrificial blood poured out from the cross, he aims “to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20).

And so Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. In this, he made an exchange: by taking our sin, he traded us his righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21); by taking our curse, he traded us his blessing (Galatians 3:13-14); by taking our poverty, he traded us his riches (2 Corinthians 8:9); by taking our death, he traded us his life; by taking our tomb, he traded us his heaven. This confession matters because “Jesus Christ our Lord gave his blood for us by the will of God, and his flesh for our flesh, and his life for our lives” (1 Clement 49.6). May our trust and love and adoration forever be in Jesus the scourged Savior, Jesus the crucified Christ, Jesus the Lord who laid down his life for his friends, Jesus “the Lamb who was slain” (Revelation 5:12). “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. … God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. … We have been justified by his blood … While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:6-10). Glory to God – the story is not yet done!