April 23, 2011

Holy Saturday: A Baptist Reflects on Holy Week

And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth (Isaiah 53:9 ESV)
What exactly was happening with Jesus Christ between His crucifixion on Friday and His resurrection on Sunday? It may be hard to believe, but most contemporary Christians, including many pastors and professional theologians, have not stopped to reflect deeply upon this question. This is amazing, because it is so central to the economy of the atonement (Mark 15:37-16:1 and parallels), central enough to be considered in the first Christian sermon, the first public presentation of the gospel (Acts 2:27, 31), and central enough to have a New Testament book dedicated to the theology of that event (Hebrews).

The plain fact is that between His crucifixion on Friday and His resurrection on Saturday, Jesus Christ, whom orthodox Christians confess was fully God and fully man in one whole person, was dead. Perhaps this is the problem for us. There are all sorts of knotty and complex questions that arise and we don't know how to answer them with our limited theological development: First, how do you understand and explain death? How do you explain that Christ, who is God, was literally dead? What does this entail for our understanding of the unity of the God-man? Did God literally die? Second, what does this entail for our understanding of the state of man between physical death and physical resurrection? Does death mean the cessation of existence, as some prominent evangelicals have held, or is the soul active in death? Third, what does this entail for our understanding of the universally accepted Apostles' Creed, when it declares that Christ was 'dead, buried, descended into hell'? What was Christ doing in hell? Fourth, what does this entail for our understanding of the Old Testament saints, who looked forward in faith to the Messiah, but who died before His atoning work was accomplished on their behalf? Fifth, why is it significant enough for the prophet to note that Christ would be buried with the rich and for all four of the Gospel writers to note that this was indeed the case? Sixth, why was it providentially necessary that Christ die? Could the Father have found some other way than the horrific death of His only begotten Son, whom He loves? Finally, what was going on within the divine Trinity between the death of the Son of the God and His subsequent resurrection? What were the Father and the Spirit and the Son doing in their relation with one another?

What we will accomplish today is not the provision of a final answer to these deep and important questions, but the proffering of a suggested outline that may help us begin to answer them. A way forward to a theology of Holy Saturday may be through a consideration of what was happening on earth, in heaven, and in hell on this day, a day that basically changed the structure of the universe.

Holy Saturday on Earth

Isaiah prophesied that the Suffering Servant would be buried with the wicked and the rich. Some interpreters and translators (yes, translation is an act of interpretation) want to make a distinction between the wicked and the rich, as if the rich possessed some righteousness, but that is difficult to reconcile with the scathing social commentary of a Jeremiah (17:11), Amos (4:1), or Micah (6:12), or the ruminations of Psalms (ch. 49) and Proverbs (28:6, 11, 20, 22). No, rather than making a distinction between the wicked and the rich, the point is to focus upon the honor of the rich in their death and burial. Although wealth does not change the perception of a person before God, it does change the perception of a person before men. In death, a rich man will have 'honor' even if he 'does not remain' (Psalm 49:12).

Isaiah prophesied that the Suffering Servant would be buried like wicked human beings but with the rich, because in His death, even men would perceive that He remained honorable throughout. Isaiah and the Gospels make much of Christ's demeanor during His trial and crucifixion. He refused to defend Himself; He refused to curse His false accusers; 'He was led as a lamb to His slaughter'. The stark contrast between the wickedness of both Jew and Gentile during the trials and crucifixion of the Lord and the manifest righteousness of the crucified God-man caused men to honor Him. At the end, after the frenzied, uncontrolled hatred of mankind had spewed its murderous bile upon the Innocent Man, there was widespread recognition that this was a travesty of justice.

Why would we 'hide our faces' from this One who was now the very opposite of 'beauty'? Why did Pilate symbolically wash his hands of the matter? Why did the one thief confess that he deserved death but Jesus did not? Why did the crowd that looked on at the crucifixion and saw Jesus breathe his last 'beat their breasts'? Why did God Himself bring a great darkness over the land at the death of this man? Why would a pagan Roman centurion cry out the very claim of Messianic faith of an orthodox Jew but currently absent Simon Peter, 'Truly this was the Son of God' and 'Certainly this was a righteous man'? Why would a frightened rich man named Joseph of Arimathea all of the sudden take courage and ask Pilate for the dead body of Jesus? Why?! Because all of them--Jew, Gentile, Rich, Poor, the Everyman, even God Himself--all of us knew that Jesus was without sin!

Jesus did not deserve to die. He had no sin. He was the exemplar of righteousness. He was completely obedient in all things to the will of God. Human government and opinion at all levels, from the local to the imperial, from the populist to the elite, from the religous to the royal, displayed our fundamental depravity in our happy collaboration to put to death the only Innocent Man. And we knew it. This is why Joseph and Nicodemus took His body and wrapped Him in expensive linen and spices. And this is why Joseph gave Him his own tomb. After their despicable treatment of the Innocent Man, the least men could do was take His dead body and give Him an honorable burial.

And the women who loved Jesus followed along to see where He was going to be buried. Then they went home to honor the Sabbath. They went home to rest even as they grieved. The human body of Jesus rested, too, on that Sabbath day. But the Son of God, whose body rested on earth, was not merely resting on earth. He also rested in hell, enjoying the proclamation of His victorious vindication. And He rested in heaven, displaying His once-for-all sacrifice to His Father through His eternal Spirit. Did He rest? Yes! His work was done, but the ramifications of His willing act to receive our death continue forever. This is why He could cry out from the cross that complex word of triumphal tragedy, 'It is finished', and yield His spirit in death.

Holy Saturday in Hell

On this Saturday those many years ago, there was silence in the households of the spectators. The Romans returned to watch over a quiet city. The Jews returned to honor the Sabbath law. The women and the disciples rested, the tears on their faces dry, the darkness in their hearts complete. Peter, the rock who became a coward, no doubt cringed in shame and considered himself dead in spirit. The silence of hopelessness is the worst silence of all. But there was no silence in hell that day. Rather, there was a shout in the abode of the dead. Sheol was shaken and transformed forever by the very presence of the Son of God in spirit.

At least, this is how the church fathers understood Holy Saturday. The addition of descensus ad infero to the Apostles' Creed occasioned no evident opposition, because the early church believed that Christ 'first descended into the lower parts' so that He might lead 'captivity captive' (Ephesians 4:8-9). Peter preached that 'His soul was not left in Hades', understanding Hades to be the equivalent of the Old Testament Sheol, the abode of all the dead (Acts 2:27, 31). The early fathers understood that Hades and Gehenna (both unfortunately translated by the King James Version as 'hell') were two different places. Hades was the abode of the dead, which was divided into two chambers before the atonement, the 'bosom of Abraham' for believers and 'this flame' for the wicked (Luke 16:19-31). At the cross, Christ was 'put to death in the flesh', but He was 'made alive by the Spirit'. He then went to preach 'to the spirits in prison'. The 'gospel was preached also to the dead' (1 Peter 3:18-19; 4:6). Christ thus confirmed the disobedient in their judgment and freed the Old Testament believers, who had a 'good testimony through faith', but who could not until His work on the cross was completed 'receive the promise' (Hebrews 11:39). The Old Testament saints subsequently made their appearance in Jerusalem after Christ's resurrection, startling many (Matthew 27:50-53).

The Patristic understanding of Holy Saturday has found adherents among Anabaptists, Baptists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox. Modern scholars, especially those in the Reformed tradition and under the spell of the Enlightenment, are less convinced. However, for those theologians who think historically rather than philosophically, there is a certain concurrence to what the Fathers discerned in Scripture. It also presents a serious challenge to the Reformed idea that the Old Testament saints could be born again by the Holy Spirit before Christ performed His work on the cross and gave the Holy Spirit to the church. The primary difficulty, however, with the idea of a 'harrowing of hell' is that it depends upon a scattered exegetical approach to Scripture, and some of the readings of the texts may be countered by legitimate alternatives. The Patristic presentation remains intriguing.

Of unchallengeable significance is the fact that Christ was doing something important in heaven with His death.

Holy Saturday in Heaven

The author of the book of Hebrews believes that in His death, Jesus Christ brings together eternity with history. (The book of Hebrews was written as an encouragement to Jewish Christians considering apostasy to relieve their persecution.) The author demonstrates from a series of sermons on the Old Testament that Christ is superior to everything, including the angels, the old covenant, the old priesthood, and the old sacrifices. In chapter nine, drawing on the priestly typology of Leviticus, He focuses particularly on the death of Christ as the perfect sacrifice by a perfect priest, who reconciles man in time with God in eternity.

'Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission' (Hebrews 9:22). This single phrase seems to be thrown in almost casually, but it is the key to the eternal significance of Holy Saturday. It is only through the blood-spilling death of the perfect sacrificial victim that a way is opened into life. Because of the sinfulness of human priests, a way to reconciliation with God could never be opened for those who willfully sinned. Eternal reconciliation depends upon a perfect priest with a sinless sacrifice. As for the perfect priest, Jesus Christ is the only one who could mediate between God and man, because He alone is both God and man. As for the sinless sacrifice, Jesus Christ likewise is the only one who, though tempted in all things as we are, is without sin. He is, uniquely, both perfect priest and sufficient sacrifice.

The significance of the sacrifice of Christ comes not only from its place in human history, a cross in first-century Palestine, but from its place in eternity. Through His sacrifice, Christ 'obtained eternal redemption'. As a result, we 'may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance'. The only way the eternal value of a temporal sacrifice could be established is if it were 'once-for-all'. For this purpose, the second person of the eternal Trinity took humanity into Himself through being conceived of the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary. As the one who is simultaneously fully God and fully man, Jesus Christ shed His blood in human death for our eternal benefit.

His work on the cross was performed 'once at the end of the ages' in order to 'put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself'. The cross of Christ is where time and eternity find their fulfillment. Sin is atoned, creation is recovered, and man is brought into the presence of God with this sacrifice. The death of Christ is necessary, because it is the sacrifice that restores everything to the way God intended. With His death, Christ brought humanity into the presence of the Father, having satisfied the wrath of God against sin and demonstrated the love of God for sinners. The death of Christ is where we find 'the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God' (Hebrews 9:14).

In other words, with His death, which we see so clearly throughout Holy Saturday, the eternal Son of God comes through the eternal Holy Spirit to present His blood to the eternal Father as a sacrifice. This sacrifice is what allows sinful man to find again His way into the presence of God. By reason of His love and in accordance with His holiness, God the Trinity has sacrificed the humanity of the Second Person of the Trinity in order to open the way for sinners to be reconciled and enter the Triune life, eternal life with the God who is one yet three.

This, at least, is how this unworthy man understands this most holy Saturday. Through faith in Christ, this dishonorable sinner may join the honorable man on the cross, escape from the deserved horrors of hell, and see heaven opened to a life with the God Who is, Who was, and Who is coming. I pray you too will believe and live.

NOTE: A reflection on Good Friday and an accompanying note on the Christian calendar may be found here. A reflection on Easter Sunday may also may be found here.